BEIT SHEMESH, Israel, Dec. 28 (UPI) -- About 10,000 people converged on Beit Shemesh to protest religious extremism in the Jerusalem-area city in particular and Israel in general.
The issue came to the forefront after television coverage last week showed ultra-Orthodox men harassing eight-year-old Na'ama Margolese as she walked to school, near where the rally occurred Tuesday. The incident was the latest of several involving efforts by Haredi ultra-Orthodox men to exclude women in public life and separate the sexes.
Before the rally, the child's mother, Hadassa Margolese, said the family felt the support and expressed hope that "what we are doing will change the future of Beit Shemesh," Haaretz reported Wednesday.
Israeli President Shimon Peres also expressed support for the rally.
"All of us, religious, secular and traditional, must defend the image of the state of Israel in the face of a minority that is breaching national solidarity and expressing itself in an outrageous manner," Peres said.
Witnesses said many protesters held signs calling on Mayor Moshe Abutbul to resign, with some blaming his leadership for the Haredi extremism.
One married ultra-Orthodox woman told The Jerusalem Post she did not understand what brought on the protests in her community, suggesting the demonstration resulted from "boredom during the Hanukkah holiday."
"As a woman, I do not feel my rights are under attack, and I do not feel threatened by those outside of my community either," she said.
Labor Party leader Shelly Yachimovich told protesters, "This is not a battle of left and right. It's not a battle of secular people against the religiously observant. It is a battle of every Israeli citizen who loves the state and is fearful for its moral image."
Speaking during a Bible Quiz for adults, Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu also condemned efforts to exclude women from the public arena.
"I welcome the fact that important rabbis from among the Haredi public are coming out decisively against this phenomenon," Netanyahu said. "I have instructed [law] enforcement authorities to exercise the fullest extent of the law against those who harass women in public places."