The myth must be dispelled. Religious extremism is not taking hold in Israel. It is being squelched. In a world where fanaticism and fundamentalism are so rampant, the citizens of Israel are putting on a clinic regarding the only way to stem the tide of the ever-spreading reach of such ideologies: staring it in the eye and calling it what it is: bad, evil, unspiritual, ungodly, and intolerable.
I live in Bet Shemesh, a small suburb of Jerusalem, which has been thrust into the international limelight because of an eight-year-old girl named Na’ama — a friend of my daughter. For years, elements of intolerance from a radical, fanatic minority of the population have been slowly bubbling to the surface. I and others in our community have organized protests and general community activism to slow the spread of this radical element. But even I could not have imagined the turn of events over the last few months that finally galvanized the hearts and minds of the Israeli public towards putting a stop to this menace, once and for all.
For the first month-and-a-half of this school year, radical, religious fanatics verbally assaulted young girls like my neighbor Na’ama on their way home from school for not being dressed according to their standards of modesty. I, together with other concerned adults, took it upon ourselves to be near the school on a daily basis to protect the girls on their way home.
In doing so, we were subjected to attacks from the extremists, including verbal insults, spitting, as well as physical abuse. We did not stand down.
While protecting the girls, we lobbied the police and governmental authorities, demanding that they intervene. The police did react with more force as time went on, but continued to allow these fanatics to scream at the girls because of “freedom of speech and expression” — including two recent instances where the extremists returned to the school. Yes, Western values at their best.
That is, until Na’ama told her story, primarily through tears, to a national television audience.
Seeing firsthand how a sweet, innocent little girl was living in constant terror because of the religious demands of fanatics mobilized the entire country. Within hours, thousands of Israelis across all religious and political affiliations were planning a march on Bet Shemesh to “protect little Naama.”
The resulting rally created a unified platform that included the participation of top national politicians, who publically denounced violence and religious extremism. Secular and ultra-Orthodox, right-wing and left-wing, men and women, adults and children including immigrants from all over the world stood on the same street where the extremists launch their assaults on the little schoolgirls. Their message: “Enough! This behavior is forbidden — according to Judaism — and will not be tolerated!”
The result of this unprecedented demonstration of national unity and revulsion: the police have become more aggressive, arresting numerous extremists within the past few days for verbal assaults. National leaders are now talking about zero tolerance towards any religious extremism. We are not in the clear yet, but the tide has turned.
The overwhelming majority of Israelis — including most ultra-Orthodox — know that core values of Judaism include “love they neighbor as thyself” and “its ways (the Bible) are ways of pleasantness,” and as a result other extremist instances are now being addressed on a national level as well.
Fanatics want women to sit in the back of certain public buses? Now, women ignore those demands and sit in the front of those buses.
Fundamentalists hang signs demanding that women only walk in certain places or dress in certain ways? Municipal authorities are now taking the signs down.
Women dressed in burkas and the like? The rabbis issue warnings that this is not the Jewish way, which has always been to respect women.