A shy eight-year-old schoolgirl has unwittingly found herself on the front line of Israel’s latest religious war.
Naama Margolese is a ponytailed, bespectacled second-grader afraid of walking to her religious Jewish girls’ school for fear of ultra-Orthodox men who have spat on her and called her a "whore" for dressing "immodestly".
After significant media attention to the young girl’s plight, thousands came out to protest on Tuesday evening against gender segregation and violence against women at a rally in Beit Shemesh, 30km to the west of Jerusalem.
Mickey Rosenfeld, a police spokesperson, told Al Jazeera a large number of security forces would be deployed for the march, following attacks on media and police on Sunday and Monday by members of the ultra-Orthodox community.
Protesters held signs at Tuesday’s protest saying, "Free Israel from religious coercion" and "Stop Israel from becoming Iran", but members of the ultra-Orthodox community were nowhere in sight during the rally.
Ahead of the gathering, President Shimon Peres had urged the public to attend.
"The demonstration today is a test for the people and not just the police," Peres told a gathering of Israeli ambassadors.
"All of us … must defend the image of the state of Israel from a minority that is destroying national solidarity and expressing itself in an infuriating way."
Al Jazeera’s Cal Perry said that protesters are demonstrating against "unfair treatment toward the Haredi population in Israel, which gets away with things that other members of the population cannot. People are saying things like ‘Israel needs to wake up’."
Our correspondent said: "There are about 5,000 people [gathered in Beit Shemesh]. This is not a big city so it’s certainly a big turnout."
He also said Israeli leaders had encouraged high turnout on Tuesday after comments by US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton "saying that treatment of this eight-year-old girl is completely degrading to Israel’s democracy".
Naama’s persecution has drawn new attention to the simmering issue of religious coercion in Israel, and the increasing brazenness by vigilantes from the insular ultra-Orthodox community.
"When I walk to school in the morning I used to get a tummy ache because I was so scared … that they were going to stand and start yelling and spitting," she said in an interview with the Associated Press news agency on Monday.
"They were scary. They don’t want us to go to the school."
The new girls’ school that Naama attends in the city of Beit Shemesh is on the border between an ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood and a community of modern Orthodox Jewish residents, many of them American immigrants.
The ultra-Orthodox consider the school an encroachment on their territory. Dozens of black-hatted men jeer and physically accost the girls almost daily, the students say.
Televised images of Naama sobbing en route to school have shocked many Israelis, elicited statements of outrage from the country’s leadership and sparked a Facebook page with nearly 10,000 followers dedicated to "protecting little Naama".
"Who’s afraid of an 8-year-old student?" Sunday’s main headline in the leading Yediot Ahronot daily said.
Beit Shemesh’s growing ultra-Orthodox population has erected street signs calling for the separation of sexes on the sidewalks, dispatched "modesty patrols" to enforce a chaste female appearance and hurled stones at offenders.
Walls of the neighbourhood are plastered with signs exhorting women to dress modestly in closed-necked, long-sleeved blouses and long skirts.
Naama’s case has been especially shocking because of her young age and because she attends a religious school and dresses with long sleeves and a skirt. Some Haredi Jews, however, consider even that outfit, standard in mainstream religious schools, to be immodest.
This week Binyamin Netanyahu, the Israeli prime minister, spoke out against the violence.
"The Israel police are taking, and will take, action to arrest and stop those who spit, harass or raise a hand. This has no place in a free and democratic state," he told his cabinet.
The abuse and segregation of women in Israel in ultra-Orthodox areas is nothing new, and critics accuse the government of turning a blind eye.
The ultra-Orthodox are perennial king-makers in Israeli coalition politics – two such parties serve as key members of Netanyahu’s coalition. They receive generous government subsidies, and police have traditionally been reluctant to enter their communities.
Ultra-Orthodox Jews make up more than 10 per cent of Israel’s population and are its fastest growing sector because of a high birth rate. In the past, they have generally confined their strict lifestyle to their own neighbourhoods.
But they have become increasingly aggressive in trying to impose their ways on others, as their population has grown and spread to new areas.
"It is clear that Israeli society is faced with a challenge that I am not sure it can handle," Menachem Friedman, a professor emeritus of Bar Ilan University and expert on the ultra-Orthodox, said. "A challenge that is no less and no more than an existential challenge,"
Most of Israel’s secular majority, in cities like Tel Aviv and Haifa, is not directly affected, but in a few places like Beit Shemesh – a city of 100,000 people that includes ultra-Orthodox, modern Orthodox and secular Jews – tensions have erupted into the open.
The abuse of the girls is an example. The girls’ parents take turns escorting their daughters onto school property to protect them. The parents, too, have been cursed and spat upon.
For Hadassa Margolese, Naama’s 30-year-old Chicago-born mother, the recent clashes – and the price of exposing her young daughter – boil down to a fight over her very home.
"They want to push us out of Beit Shemesh. They want to take over the city," Margolese said.
(Al Jazeera and Agencies)