Ultra-Orthodox men, some wearing uniforms like those worn by Jews during the holocaust, take part in a protest against what they called oppression of Ultra-Orthodox Jews. Picture: REUTERS/Baz Ratner
Dozens of activists against gender segregation boarded buses serving Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox Jews on Sunday to protest the unwritten rule that women sit at the back.
The protest, which passed off without incident, came as discrimination against women imposed by a radical fringe within the ultra-Orthodox Jewish community aroused strong emotions in Israel, after a series of incidents that forced political leaders to react.
Men and women who took part in the protest, most of them young, gathered not far from Jerusalem's central bus station, which is located near religious neighbourhoods, an AFP correspondent reported.
Groups of ten then boarded buses travelling to ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods, with protesters taking the front seats in defiance of the unwritten rule that allocates the front of buses to men and the back to women.
The correspondent said the protest provoked no reaction from ultra-Orthodox passengers.
The event was organised by liberal Jewish organisations and groups that have campaigned for years against the gender segregation in public transport frequented by the ultra-Orthodox.
Religious hardliners caused an uproar in Israel when they donned symbols of the Holocaust, including yellow stars, at a Saturday night demonstration in Jerusalem to protest against what they see as media attacks on the ultra-Orthodox.
"It's shocking and terrifying," Defence Minister Ehud Barak told public radio on Sunday, a day after hundreds gathered to protest "incitement against the ultra-Orthodox public" in Israel's media.
"The leadership of the Orthodox Jewish community, which is globally responsible, must eradicate this intolerable phenomenon," he added.
The demonstration in the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighbourhood of Mea Shearim attracted hundreds of men and boys, some wearing yellow stars and others the striped uniforms of the Nazi death camps.
The rally was ostensibly called to protest the jailing of a man who led vigilante attacks against a neighbourhood religious bookshop accused by community hardliners of selling non-religious books.
But ultra-Orthodox news website Kikar Hashabbat said the demonstration was a response to media criticism in recent weeks of the community and its attempts to enforce gender segregation.
Kikar Hashabbat said demonstrators donned yellow stars, which Jews in Germany and countries occupied by the Nazis were forced to wear to identify themselves in public, as "an exceptional protest measure."
The demonstration drew strong criticism from the director of Israel's Holocaust museum Yad Vashem.
"I condemn in the strongest possible manner the phenomenon of using symbols of the Holocaust. It's unacceptable," Avner Shalev told public radio.
"This comes from an extremist attitude and a clear desire to provoke," added Shalev, who said the demonstrators were not representative of most ultra-Orthodox Jews or Israeli society at large.
Photographs of the protest were splashed across the front pages of Israel's newspaper which also carried editorials condemning the use of Holocaust symbols.
The demonstration comes after weeks of heated public discussion about the role of ultra-Orthodox communities in Israel, with particular focus on their efforts to gender-segregate transport and even the streets.
The debate, long-simmering, hit the headlines after Israeli news channels screened reports on the town of Beit Shemesh, where ultra-Orthodox men have spat at women they say are provocatively dressed and even hurled insults at an eight-year-old girl over her "immodest" attire. -AFP