By Dan Williams
JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stepped up pledges to curb Jewish zealotry in Israel on Sunday after an 8-year-old girl complained of being menaced by ultra-Orthodox men who deemed her dress immodest.
While his conservative government insists such incidents are fringe phenomena in the mostly secular country, Netanyahu's repeated announcements on the matter reflected concern about widening religious and political schisms.
"In a Western, liberal democracy, the public realm is open and safe for all, men and women both, and neither harassment nor discrimination have any place there," the prime minister told his cabinet in broadcast remarks.
He said he had ordered law enforcement authorities to crack down on "whoever spits, whoever lifts a hand (in violence), whoever harasses" and to remove street signs segregating men from women in some ultra-Orthodox districts.
The statement appeared to have been prompted by an expose aired on Israel's top-rated weekend television news about spiraling intra-Jewish friction in Beit Shemesh, a town of about 87,000 people near Jerusalem.
Eight-year-old Naama Margolese told Channel Two TV she was terrified of walking to her moderate Orthodox school because of passersby who wanted her "to dress like a Haredi" - the Hebrew term for the ascetic, black-coated Jews who are in "awe" of God.
"I'm afraid I might get hurt or something," the girl said.
Margolese's mother Hadassa, an American immigrant who wore a headscarf and skirt in deference to religious Jewish tradition, said the sidewalk abuse could include spitting, curses like "whores" and "bastards" and calls to "clear out of here".
Channel Two showed a Beit Shemesh street sign ordering women to keep to one side, away from a synagogue. A few ultra-Orthodox men who were interviewed disavowed religiously motivated aggression toward women. Others sought to justify it. Some shunned the TV crew, shouting at the journalists to leave.
The report resonated in Israel given recent media focus on the impact of ultra-Orthodox gender segregation on public transport and in the conscript military, where some religious troops boycott women instructors and entertainers.
The ultra-Orthodox make up only about 10 percent of Israel's population of 7.7 million. But their high birthrates and bloc voting patterns have helped them secure welfare benefits and wider influence. One of Netanyahu's biggest partners in the coalition government, Shas, is a party run by rabbis.
According to Channel Two, the Beit Shemesh story has generated momentum for a demonstration against ultra-Orthodox violence in the town, scheduled for Tuesday.
Moshe Abutbol, the Shas mayor of Beit Shemesh, called for calm, telling Israel's Army Radio that "no more than 20 to 50" of the townspeople were involved in the open abuse of women.
Israeli police said on Sunday that a Beit Shemesh man had been arrested for spitting at a woman and faced assault charges.
Emulating military commandos who disguise themselves as Arabs for missions in Palestinian areas, police have officers who work undercover among the ultra-Orthodox. Israeli television showed them swooping on a rowdy December 17 protest in Jerusalem.
Netanyahu has also condemned radical Jews behind a spree of vandalism against Palestinian property and Israeli garrisons in the occupied West Bank, attacks designed to bog down government moves to raze settlements built without a permit.
"Beit Shemesh shocked Netanyahu not because of new facts but because of old facts that were recounted by a lovely little blond-haired girl with blue eyes," said Nahum Barnea, senior commentator for the biggest-selling newspaper Yedioth Ahronoth.
"But their thuggery, just like the thuggery in the settlement outposts, paralyses other people in their midst who are less extreme, who warn the establishment, from the prime minister down. The tail wags the dog."
(Reporting by Dan Williams; Editing by Alistair Lyon)