By Allyn Fisher-Ilan
BEIT SHEMESH, Israel (Reuters) - American immigrant Ayelet Wortman was walking with a male friend on a weekend afternoon when a black-cloaked ultra-Orthodox Jew grabbed him from behind, ripped his shirt, and called her a "whore."
"We literally ran all the way back home," some blocks away, Wortman, 18, said in an interview in Beit Shemesh, a flashpoint Israeli city near Jerusalem where tensions have flared over an increasingly assertive and aggressive sect of religious zealots.
That incident happened a couple of years ago, but the story of an eight-year-old girl being spat upon on her way to school has riveted national attention and drawn pledges by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to crack down on the harassment.
Several thousand women's right activists, liberals and religious pluralists rallied in Beit Shemesh Tuesday against what they described as the coercive encroachment of patriarchal ultra-Orthodox values in the mostly secular Jewish state.
Women have complained of being forced to sit in the back of buses in many cities where the ultra-Orthodox live. Two women were barred from going to the podium to accept prizes at a recent ceremony sponsored by a religious cabinet minister.
"We are fighting for the soul of the nation," President Shimon Peres said earlier of the reasons to protest.
Many ultra-Orthodox eschew any form of public contact or interaction between the sexes, and follow a strict dress code of showing as little skin as possible, though some religious leaders charge a fringe minority has taken these customs to an extreme and condemn any violence toward women.
But many Israelis still fear a religiously fervent minority in their midst is using its disproportionate political clout to try and achieve a goal of turning Israel into a clerical state.
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.
For many living in middle-class Beit Shemesh, this cultural feud unfolds on an almost daily basis just outside their doors.
Police patrols are being boosted to prevent further friction. But Wortman, the eldest of seven children in a moderate Orthodox family that immigrated from Staten Island, New York, some six years ago, doubts it will do much good.
Her two younger brothers cower in fear every day before they head to their school, located in a building near the mushrooming ultra-Orthodox enclave in their neighborhood.
Their mother, Shlomzi Wortman, 42, said ultra-Orthodox men often shout epithets at them whenever she escorts the boys the several hundred meters (yards) distance to their classrooms.
"You can't even talk to them, they just start shrieking at you," Wortman said.
The Wortmans, and many on their block, are also religiously observant Jews but embrace a more open lifestyle than the ascetic and insular ultra-Orthodox, who avoid any public contact or interaction between men and women.
"It's not even a religious thing. It's just a group of extremists against everyone," Ayelet Wortman said.
While some of their ultra-Orthodox neighbors privately denounce what they call the actions of a fanatical minority, most all say they dread venting any outrage publicly, the Wortmans said.
They trace the latest tensions in their neighborhood to the burgeoning ultra-Orthodox population of Beit Shemesh, an otherwise largely immigrant populated city of about 90,000.
Some of the more zealous newcomers live in the Wortmans' neighborhood, and in addition to lashing out at lifestyle differences some also have an eye on taking control of their schools, citing a shortage of their own facilities for an ever expanding population with a high birth-rate.
An ultra-Orthodox man in Beit Shemesh, identified only as Moshe, admitted on Israel's Channel 2 television there were spitting attacks at young girls.
"That's right, they are immodest. It bothers me, I am a healthy person. It is proper to spit on a girl who does not conduct herself according to the Torah," Moshe said.
Israeli Interior Minister Eli Yishai, of the ultra-Orthodox party Shas in Netanyahu's ruling coalition, denounced such behavior at a party meeting as "nauseating and disgusting" saying it contravened the teachings of holy scriptures.
Yishai also criticized what he saw as "attempts to incite" against the ultra-Orthodox and intimated the Israeli public was seeking to blame them all for the actions of a few.
Revital Kornayev, a Russian immigrant, says she's tired of fielding complaints about the length of her skirt at the local bank in Beit Shemesh and worrying about a 10-year-old daughter whose school is located near an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood.
She hopes to save up enough to move away. "I'm tired of having to put on a long-sleeved shirt and skirt even in summer just so they won't attack me," Kornayev said.