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A t 8am, little girls carrying backpacks stuffed with books and lunchboxes greet each other with giggles and whispers as they wait for the security guard to unlock the school gates. All are dressed in compliance with the school's regulations: skirt to the knee or below; sleeves at least to the elbow. The youngest are six, the oldest the age of innocence. But this has not protected these children from becoming the focus of a cultural, religious and territorial struggle between Jews in the city of Bet Shemesh, which many say reflects a wider battle across the country as the ultra-orthodox, or Haredim, grow in number and influence.
Since the state-funded religious-nationalist school of Orot Girls opened in new premises in September, groups of extreme Haredi men regularly gather at the gates, screaming "whore" and "slut" at the girls and their mothers. The demonstrators say they are dressed "immodestly"; that even girls as young as six should cover their flesh. Women joggers have been spat at and verbally abused. A few days ago, a canvasser in her 60s, wearing shirt and trousers, was physically barred from entering an apartment block and called a whore.
Signs pasted to apartment blocks near the school, occupied by Haredi families, read: "Women who pass through our neighbourhood are required to appear in modest dress. But it is the school that has become the pivot of tensions between the religious-nationalist Jews who are orthodox and committed Zionists and secular communities in Bet Shemesh and their Haredi neighbours.
Until this year, the school was in a decrepit downtown area; the city council agreed to relocate it next to Orot Boys and close to two mixed Jewish neighbourhoods. There was an immediate backlash from the Haredim next door. The campaign is being driven by a small group, say parents and activists who label their opponents kanaim — loosely translated as extremist, fanatic, zealot, fundamentalist.
What they do is described as "terrorism". What other word is there but terrorism? The Haredim are not interested in explaining their grievances or justifying their tactics to the media. But when community activist Rabbi Dov Lipman asked one protester why they were focusing on the way small girls dress, he was told "even an eight-year-old draws my eyes".