Peres urges Israelis to mobilise to thwart ultra-Orthodox Jewish zealots

December 27, 2011

(An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man (L) argues with a secular man during a protest against the government's pledge to curb Jewish zealotry in Israel, in the town of Beit Shemesh, near Jerusalem December 26, 2011.REUTERS/Oren Nahshon)

President Shimon Peres urged Israelis on Tuesday to rally against ultra-Orthodox Jewish zealots trying to impose their strict religious code on a troubled town near Jerusalem. “We are fighting for the soul of the nation and the essence of the state,” Peres said in broadcast remarks at an event at his official residence.

The plight of an eight-year-old girl, who said last week that ultra-Orthodox men accused her of being dressed immodestly and spat at her as she walked to school, has added to growing concerns in Israel over a rise in religious extremism.

Shouting “Nazis, Nazis,” religious protesters in Beit Shemesh, where the incident took place, on Monday clashed with police deployed to prevent zealots from attacking TV news crews reporting on tensions in the town, some 30 km (18 miles) from Jerusalem.

Authorities further stoked anger among the zealots, who advocate gender segregation, by removing a sign urging women to avoid certain streets in areas where the ultra-religious live.

Pro-democracy activists scheduled a rally for 6 p.m. (1600 GMT) in Beit Shemesh to protest against the segregation of women and violence that has included stone-throwing at reporters and police.

“Today is a test in which the entire nation will have to mobilise to rescue the majority from the claws of a small minority that is chipping away at our most hallowed values,” Peres said. “No person has the right to threaten a girl, a woman or any person in any way,” he said. “They are not the lords of this land.”

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