By Allyn Fisher-Ilan
BEIT SHEMESH, Israel (Reuters) - Several thousand pro-democracy activists protested on Tuesday against violence by religious zealots trying to impose their religious code on a flashpoint town near Jerusalem.
The rally in the town of Beit Shemesh was organized after an outburst of public anger when an eight-year-old girl said on national television that ultra-Orthodox men had spat at her on her way to school, accusing her of immodest dress.
"We are struggling over Israel's character not only in Beit Shemesh and not only over the exclusion of women but against all the extremists who have come out of the woodwork to try and impose their world view on us," parliamentary opposition leader Tsipi Livni said in a keynote address.
Some protesters held signs that read "We won't become another Tehran," alluding to the Islamic republic in Iran where most women are forced to cover their heads in public.
President Shimon Peres said earlier, in broadcast remarks, about fears of rising religious extremism in Israel:
"We are fighting for the soul of the nation and the essence of the state."
"Today is a test in which the entire nation will have to mobilize to rescue the majority from the claws of a small minority that is chipping away at our most hallowed values," Peres said.
"No person has the right to threaten a girl, a woman or any person in any way," he said. "They are not the lords of this land."
Shouting "Nazis, Nazis," religious protesters in Beit Shemesh, clashed on Monday with police deployed to prevent zealots from attacking TV news crews reporting on tensions in the town, some 30 km (18 miles) from Jerusalem.
Authorities further stoked anger among the zealots, who advocate gender segregation, by removing a sign urging women to avoid certain streets in areas where the ultra-religious live.
Some bus lines in religious neighborhoods nationwide are already segregated, with women sitting in the back of vehicles. Under Israeli law, they do not have to move to the rear but risk verbal and physical abuse from male passengers for refusing to do so.
Some rabbis in Jerusalem have demanded that businesses avoid posting photographs of women or employing them in any of the shops patronized by the ultra-Orthodox.
Though numbering only 10 percent of Israel's mostly Jewish population of 7.7 million, the ultra-Orthodox wield political clout in a country where no one party has ever won a parliamentary majority and coalition governments have always ruled.
Many rabbis have insisted the incidents in Beit Shemesh were the acts of a fringe minority. Some rabbis, among them members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's leading ultra-Orthodox coalition partner, the Shas party, have joined him in condemning the violence.
Sarit Ramon, a secular resident of Beit Shemesh, said the situation in the town, which has a delicate mix of religiously observant immigrants living alongside Israelis embracing a more modern lifestyle, has been "catastrophic for years."
"This didn't start today, but now unfortunately when a child is harmed and spat at, it creates noise," she told Reuters. "But when I told that I was spat at a year and a half ago, people raised an eyebrow, and that was about it."
(Editing by Matthew Jones)