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Poster Child

Naama Margolese—an 8-year-old Israeli girl taunted by ultra-Orthodox men who think she is immodest—is the new face of Jewish women’s rights

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Naama Margolese. (Illustration Abigail Miller/Tablet Magazine, based on a photo by Daniella Cheslow.)
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State of Her Own

In March, we’re going to have a daughter in Israel, our chosen home. But recent events have us doubting if this is the best place to raise her.

When former Israeli president Moshe Katsav walked into central Israel’s Maasiyahu prison early last month to begin serving a seven-year sentence for raping a female employee, feminists rejoiced that sexual abuse had been punished at the highest level in the land. But just two weeks later, the plight of an 8-year-old girl drew their—and the country’s—attention to the city of Beit Shemesh, the new ground zero of discrimination against women in Israel.

Naama Margolese, a shy blonde girl with blue eyes and glasses, became a household name in late December when Channel 2 TV aired a report about the ultra-Orthodox men who regularly taunted her on her walk to school.

In the report, Naama whimpered, “Mom, I’m scared,” as she clutched her mother’s hand during the 300-yard walk from their home to school. In footage, Naama wears skirts to her ankles and covers her shoulders like the rest of the students at her Orthodox school, called Orot, for girls aged 6 to 12. But ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, men call Naama and her friends whores and spit on them. The school’s ultra-Orthodox neighbors told the TV reporters the Orot girls deserved to be sworn at and attacked for violating the Torah’s command to cover up.

Naama’s story is the latest incident of ultra-Orthodox harassment of women to be reported in recent weeks. Days before Channel 2 aired their report, Tanya Rosenblit, a 28-year-old woman from Ashdod, publicized the half-hour standoff that ensued when she refused an ultra-Orthodox man’s demand to move to the back of a public bus from Ashdod to Jerusalem. In September, nine religious male soldiers refused to stay in an auditorium where women were singing during an official military ceremony. In response, the army expelled four of them from their prestigious officers’ course.

Ultra-Orthodox demands on women in the public sphere are not new: In Jerusalem’s insular neighborhood of Mea Shearim, for example, signs imploring female visitors to dress modestly have plastered the stone walls for decades. But in recent years, the calls have radiated out of that Jerusalem shtetl to larger Orthodox sections of Jerusalem and beyond. Health clinics and post offices have begun to hold separate hours for men and women. Advertising agencies have stopped featuring women on billboards in Jerusalem—even after they covered up their models with long sleeves—because fundamentalist Jews would vandalize the signs.

In the past, these stories garnered only minor news coverage. But Naama’s story sparked a public uproar because she is so young, because police seemed to be doing nothing, and because all the lead characters are religious. Late last month, at a conference for Israeli ambassadors in Jerusalem, President Shimon Peres called on Israelis to “save the majority from the talons of the minority.” He added: “We are fighting for the soul of the people and for the substance of the state.”


Founded in 1950 by Jewish immigrants from Bulgaria, Romania, Iraq, Iran, and Morocco, Beit Shemesh’s old city is full of the stucco-sided public-housing blocks typical of ’50s Israeli construction. It was once a mostly traditional or Orthodox town, but in the last two decades, more stringent ultra-Orthodox newcomers have moved in from Jerusalem.

These new ultra-Orthodox residents tended to congregate in their own neighborhoods. They postered public walls with pashkevilim, large block-print Hebrew papers that are vital media for people who shun mainstream Israeli TV, radio, and print news. On a sidewalk near a synagogue, they put up signs asking women to cross to the other side of the street and not to stop to chat because doing so would attract undue attention from the pious. On buses that run through their neighborhoods, the ultra-Orthodox have managed to impose an unofficial rule that women must sit in the back. Beit Shemesh is also home to a new, tiny sect of ultra-conservative women who cover up in the style of the most observant Muslim women, from head to toe.

Today, about 40 percent of Beit Shemesh’s 90,000 residents are Haredi, including the city’s mayor, Moshe Abutbul. The other 60 percent includes longtime residents, several thousand immigrants from the former Soviet Union and Ethiopia, and a tight-knit community of English-speaking immigrants from the United States and Britain.

Naama’s British neighbor, Alisa Coleman, told me that the spitting and attacks began when Naama’s school opened in September. The Haredis, who have been fighting for a larger share of municipal funding and property, wanted the school building for themselves. Coleman volunteered to escort the girls during pickup and dropoff. Ultra-Orthodox men spat in her face and called her a shiksa, a derogatory Yiddish word for a non-Jewish woman, even while Channel 2 TV’s cameras rolled. Coleman, who immigrated 18 years ago, said the slur sounded peculiar in Israel, especially because in England she’d be “shouted at for being Jewish.”

Other neighbors said the attacks weren’t only verbal. Mira Aharonson said her daughter returned to school after the Sukkot holiday break to find her classroom reeking of dead fish. Feces had been smeared on the wall.

In the Haredi neighborhood of Nachala Umenucha in Beit Shemesh, residents I spoke to were divided about the school. Zvika Borenstein, who works in a hardware store, answered my questions in between snatches of Yiddish he spoke to his customers. He said modesty is in the eye of the beholder, and that halacha, Jewish religious law, does not have all the answers about the proper way to dress. “There are many, many levels of modesty,” he said. “There are things in the halacha, and there are things that are beyond the halacha.”

Shulamit Frie, a 36-year-old Haredi teacher, claimed she didn’t know about Naama’s school. She said she had no problem with the treatment of women in her neighborhood in Beit Shemesh—including with the use of segregated sidewalks. “It is not written not to pass over there, just not to stand there too long,” she said. “I don’t feel comfortable if a man is sitting in the women’s section of the bus,” she added. “What if I want to nurse my baby?”

Israeli TV captured ultra-Orthodox men saying little girls were scandalizing them. “They don’t dress modestly. It bothers me,” a local man named Moshe told the Channel 2 Crew. “To spit at a girl who isn’t behaving according to Torah law—yes, that’s correct.”


On the sixth night of Hanukkah, Naama’s parents, Hadassa and Benji Margolese, hosted a candle-lighting ceremony for their supporters. Hadassa was born in Chicago, Benji was raised in Toronto, and the couple moved to Beit Shemesh eight years ago. They are part of a vibrant English-speaking Orthodox community, and it’s hard to imagine anyone questioning their Jewishness: That night, their living room windows were plastered in paper cutouts of dreidels and menorahs. Hadassa said the attacks gave Naama anxiety, nightmares, and insomnia.

The Margoleses welcomed moderate black-hatted well-wishers to their home that night, including Knesset Member Rabbi Haim Amsallem. Amsallem was expelled from the ultra-Orthodox party Shas in 2010 for calling on Haredi men to serve in the army and work rather than study Torah. “Not all the Haredi public is crazy,” he said at their home. “The majority is sane. But the moderate public sometimes struggles to express itself.” Amsallem said he hoped the police would clean up the issue. “We don’t want to live here like in Tehran.”


According to Beit Shemesh City Councilman Shalom Lerner, tensions with the ultra-Orthodox residents have been building for years, centering on a fight for housing, funding, and schools. Lerner, who is Modern Orthodox, said the previous mayor was too soft on the Haredi community, including allowing them to mark the borders of their territory with signs instructing women to dress modestly. He said the local police have also been lax about punishing ultra-Orthodox residents who attack women because in the past the community reacted to arrests with riots, during which they burned garbage and stoned buses.

“The police response in the beginning was terrible,” Lerner said. “They said, ‘Oh, well, you should be careful,’ as if there were two sides to the story. We intervened, we went to the politicians, to members of Knesset, to ministers, we wrote letters and the press started writing about it. All of the sudden people have been arrested and taken to court.”

In response to the Channel 2 news report, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu called on police to come down hard on harassment and exclusion of women. According to a spokeswoman for the Jerusalem police, District Commander Niso Shaham has made gender discrimination a top priority in both Beit Shemesh and Mea Shearim. This includes taking down signs and fences that keep women off the sidewalks. The police have been met with an aggressive response. On Dec. 25 and Dec. 26 Haredi rioters attacked television news crews. Another riot erupted days later. A spokeswoman for Shaham said the police have made 17 arrests of Haredis in Beit Shemesh in the last four months.

On the last Tuesday in December, at least 3,000 protesters rallied outside Naama’s school, including a wide array of parliamentarians, from Limor Livnat in the ruling right-wing Likud party, to Tzipi Livni of the centrist Kadima party, to Shelly Yachimovich and Nitzan Horowitz of more dovish parties. The protest went smoothly, albeit under strong police supervision. Besides the Israeli politicians, American residents of Beit Shemesh were prominent at the podium. Baltimore transplant Dov Lipman was one of the main organizers of the protest. Hadassa Margolese thanked supporters for taking up the plight of her daughter.

Since the Beit Shemesh report aired, other stories of gender discrimination have become more prominent in the Israeli press. Jerusalem resident Shlomo Fuchs, 44, was indicted late last month for sexual harassment after a female soldier named Doron Matalon claimed he called her a whore on a bus. A few days later, a progressive group in Jerusalem appealed to the High Court of Justice, demanding that Egged, the public transportation company, carry advertisements featuring women. Until now, Egged has refused, claiming that they trigger costly vandalism by extremists.

While these gender discrimination cases work their way through the courts, last Friday 250 women in Beit Semesh gathered in the city center to dance in a flashmob to Queen’s “Don’t Stop Me Now.” But some residents say that long-term demographics in their town clearly favor the ultra-Orthodox: Plans are in the works for another all-Haredi neighborhood of more than 1,500 housing units.

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The battles currently being waged in Beit Shemesh are part of the much larger war to determine Israel’s future as a democratic state.

D'vorah says:

Israel must do something to stop these Jewish thugs who are terrorizing little girls. They are nothing more than Jewish Taliban, if you ask me. People who hide behind the “glory” of their religiosity while doing terrible things are despicable. This is more than just simple discrimination. This is terrorism by Jews against Jews. It needs to change.

JCarpenter says:

Fundamentalism, whether Jewish, Christian, or Islamic, with is focus on “purity,” is not only offensive to outsiders but oppressive to its own. God must be so proud of the abuse heaped on young children in his name . . . . I’d think the fundamentals of the Ten Commandments would be enough; where is “heap abuse on your neighbor” written?

Harold Tobin says:

The Israeli Government must put a stop to this madness ASAP,otherwise Israel will become two countries. We don`t need enemies we can do the job ourselves.

this kind of story continues to shock and sadden me. People ask me why I am ambivalent about Israel. this is one of the primary reasons. As an American feminist Jew the audacity and inhumanity of the men appalls me.

Floyd says:

How sad.Will Israel remain a democracy?

Shoshannah says:

“Religion is an insult to human dignity. With or without it, you’d have good people doing good things and evil people doing bad things, but for good people to do bad things, it takes religion.” Steven Weinberg

Jennifer Low says:

The first thought that came to me was “is acid to be thrown in their faces next?”. The horror of confirming that we have our own Taliban after simply just being appalled and angry over the bus issue! The Israeli government must act quickly and decisively. We’ve watched chairs thrown at women at the Wall, settlers engaging in “price tag” violence – illegal whether against Israelis or Arabs- forcing women to walk in the street or on different sidewalks; barring women from buses and making them sit in the back!; and now spitting and yelling obscenities at children. Where are the Rabbis? Where are the police? The army? The government? Now I have to figure out what I can do – as we all must – no matter our position on the Jewish spectrum.

Bill Pearlman says:

These guys are cowards. Netanyahu needs to make a forceful response. I think that sending in some female IDF weapons instructors. locked and loaded. Would do the trick. Because obviously the municipal authorities, the police, have decided to go missing in action.

Sandy says:

5772 years and we still can’t figure out how to treat women, 50% of the population? Beyond embarrassing.

geesam47 says:

These Orthodox Jewish men seem akin, as shown on t.v., to the Moslem Orthodox men who treat their women like slaves. Their time is burning their Temple down. It’s time for change.

So, this sounds like yet another middle eastern turf war. If the school was theirs, the girls could dress the exact same way with impunity.

Has anyone called them on their hyprocrisy?

George Gabbora says:

Why is the little girl orange in the picture? An odd graphical choice.

Other than that, not very balanced. Most of the Hasidim in the area are against such behavior by their compatriots. It’s easy to paint with a broad stroke, eh?

Jennifer Low says:

Has anyone heard about group action/rallies or similar? I’m in LA and too new to know who should be organizing community response or who I could help. @ bill pearlman – fabulous idea. Similar to Jeffrey Goldberg’s idea to imprison the extreme violent settlers in prison used for Palestinians.

I just think we should do more than “comment.”

This article just stokes the fires. Why don’t you mention that several important haredi leaders among them the Belzer Rebbe have condemmned spitting and that the spitters own Rav has condemned him to the point where he can’t get an aliya in his synagogue. Why did Mrs. Margolese alert the world press? Why didn’t both sides both of whom claim to be Orthodox and led by rabbis sit down to resolve this matter quietly. Instead it’s turned into a snowball, picking up a whole bunch of ancillary issues from the bus incident–which I’ve heard was a set up–the segregated busses run only in Haredi neighborhoods and many residents prefer to sit separately–their right I’d say, the the women singing in the army–shouldnt orthodox soldiers who don’t want to hear female vocalists be accomodated? It would be tragic for the country to break up over this. What is needed is more sensitivity not articles like this one.

Bill Pearlman says:

Too cute by half Jo. I’m somewhat observant and has Pro-Israel has you can get. Kahane supporter and all. What is there to resolve. All I see is a bunch of idiots. ( who seem to have some sort of repressed sexual/pedophile thing happening ) Dumping on an 8 year old Jewish girl. And the bus incident. I’m sorry, I take the side of an IDF soldier over that guy anyday. And how does he even know the word “slut” if he spends his days immersed in Torah studies

Jo, There is no reason whatsoever for the Margolese family and any of the other people who were targeted by the Haredi groups to follow any course other than what they chose.

The idea that these attacks should be swept under the rug with the philosophy of ‘sha – sthil’ is over. Physical and verbal attacks on women are just not acceptable. And for these so-called men, to spit on, and abuse young children?!? That, plain and simple, is a shandra, shameful to the wider Jewish community.

More than that though, these acts of violence, are criminal, and should be treated as such. Rioting, attacking women and children, that’s violence and coercion that is wholly unacceptable in any community.

As for the female IDF soldiers its simple. The women are soldiers, of all ranks including officers. The military is a gender-neutral organization. For some soldiers to say that they are unable to hear the sound of a women’s voice moves quickly from singing to accepting orders from a female superior.

The culture of not seeing, not hearing, and not living with the existence of women shows an extreme view of modesty. We saw this earlier last year when a Haredi newspaper cut out US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton from a White House photograph because it didn’t want to expose its readership to a photo of a woman.

If these men have such issues, then perhaps rather than removing all women from the public eye, we can purchase horse-blinders for these men.

But any idea that the use of physical coercion and violence is required to advance Halacha and mitzvot, needs to be stopped immediately.

i live in jerusalem and believe me this outrageous primitive stupidity is not going to take over here, especially where i live. i will not tolerate it and many others agree with this.
i am sure that this twisted men are perverts and makes sense that they would attack little girls as they are not normal in their own sexuality.
a normal man does not look at little girls or boys. and there are many normal men here

as i am in the middle of the war against the perverts in my street – i know begin to recognise the perverts in their looks and behaviour.

we will not let them win. ever no pervert in religious clothes is going to dictate normal standarda of behaviour between men and women. never

i am disgusted by them and those who support is horrible. good for the women who stand up for themselves like the russian girl and the soldier girl.

i am happy it came out in the media, about bloody time this is exposed. even god cannot help the idiot who thinks he can educate me on where to walk or sit.

we need to be heard that this is not acceptable and disgusting and not keep quiet.

Another bullshit article. The crazy haredim who spit on children and separate women on the street are a few hundreds out of 600,000 to 1 million (depends how you count) haredim.

The haredim are in the middle of a culture change, they are starting to serve in the army, to work, to integrate. And the most crazy extremist lunatics among them try to stop this trend.

By attacking the haredim as if they were one block you are the best ally these extremists can hope for. You and all the media that want conflict and does not want the haredim to be part of Israel’s society.

Hopefully, you will fail.

Bill Pearlma says:

Ruth your right. There is something very strange about men who take notice of how little girls are dressed

L wineman says:

Why does it seem that ever article here on Israel resorts on the most outrageous analogies and conclusions. Moshe Katsav was convicted of rape and there was testimony of multiple witnesses of a long pattern of sexual harassment. The praise among the Israeli feminists was that it struck a blow to the good old boy macho culture of israeli SECULAR culture such as the officer who used his position to gain sexual favors from young female soldiers something that everyone acknowledge was tolerate with a “boys will be boys” attitude for decades (cf Moshe Dayan)

The behavior of the small minority of a minority in heith shemesh is repulsive behavior and should be condemned. But to begin an article about it by drawing some kind of connection to the conviction of Katsav of rape is ridiculous. Even pulling in the last example of verbal abuse after starting the article with rape is inane. But it seems anything to draw things in apocalyptic terms in israel is ok. A few days ago a child of a conserv convert is “not welcome in Israel” even though her parents were entitled to special benefits as new jewish citizens of Israel. Today those that scream insults at this young woman are one step away from being rapists.

L wineman says:

“We don’t want to live here like in Tehran.”

A responsible journalist would have noted that Israel is far far away from that as evidenced (to give just one example) by the masses of bikini clad women with cheeseburgers available at many of the cafes open for business along the tel aviv (and everywhere else beaches) on shabbat the busiest beach day of the year. Never in the history of Israel has there ever been any charedi effort to shut that down.

David B. says:

Daniella Cheslow illustrates the need for publications to find articles about Israel in order to feed a market. The quality of “journalism” suffers and so we end up with hack pieces like this.
The situation is so complex and intricate that it explodes the mind of most, certainly Cheslow’s.
And judging by the thread, we are at the point of ” I don’t know what can be done, but something should be done “. Misinformed US women who don’t really understand much galloping off into actionism.
Somebody stop this madness. Where is editorial control here? HELLO?

Bill Pearlma says:

I’m sorry, I don’t see the intricacy here. All I see is an 8 year old girl who is afraid to walk to school. What do you see?

cindi b says:

It’s always been a mystery to me how these ultra-pious men are so easily distracted from their Torah study which is supposedly so important to them. Maybe they should take some medication for ADHD.

David B. says:

I know a Haredi in Jtown. He can talk for ours about halacha sex. All he thinks about is pussy. Like the Arab’s who never get any. Or the priest’s who bone nine year old’s. It is all the same.
One of the hardest things for Buddhist monks to get a handle on is their libido. It is probably the last thing to fall away, if ever, from a man. Years of meditation are needed to “let go” of that drive. It is the way men are wired.
And since haredi live with women, albeit differently, the thought always arises. I mean when you fuck all the time, six, seven eight nine ten eleven kids, of course you will have problems.
Way too many triggers, those bed sheets with their holes in them strung over the street, that just SCREAMS SEX. How can you not be horny?
The other issue is that there are many haredi who should not be haredi because they don’t have what it takes. That is why they pivot to become a “police man”. Simple psychology. Can’t get your head around the essence and then you run around controlling others, because you project your cock into the world all the time.
Like many Arab’s. I have seen stuff in Egypt involving men and women, you would not believe. BUT they are ALL good Muslim’s! whateva!

David B. says:

So instead of having Daniella write this piece, maybe we can have a shrink’s opinion on how the libido effects men in such a cultural environment. It ain’t rocket science.
All of this is NOT about Judaism or what ever. It is simply frustrated desperately horny men ( see Iran ). Decipher the suppressed libido and you have a good article.

Jennifer Low says:

And now a successful intelligent female pediatrician researcher, Channa Maayan, known for her work on Jewish genetic diseases is not permitted to personally accept her award on stage from the Health Ministry bc the acting minister of health is ultra-orthodox. Why? because she’s a woman. A male colleague has to accept on her behalf.

Whether you think the reporting is “hack” or not, women and little girls are under verbal and physical attack; they are denied basic rights to live, work and go to school unmolested; they, are shoved on buses and forced to sit in the back; physically attacked and heckled at the Kotel, arrested for wearing a tallit at the Kotel, among other indignities. Under Jewish law, Jews respect the law of the land on which they live. There should be condemnation from within the community, the government, police and army as applicable to the crime. If men don’t want to see women on buses, let them walk. If don’t want to see girls going to school, stay home, in the yeshiva or shul or find a different route.

I don’t care if it’s a small group of nutcases, they; are breaking the law and certainly have chosen to ignore the most fundamental principles of Judaism – just like Islamic fundamentalists and Christian fanatics (Missouri boot heel) who read the Koran, Bible and follow the fringe to barbaric acts.

PS – how ironic that Dr. Maayan, a woman, is awarded the honor by the health ministry but she is not allowed to accept it herself.

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Poster Child

Naama Margolese—an 8-year-old Israeli girl taunted by ultra-Orthodox men who think she is immodest—is the new face of Jewish women’s rights