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Controversial sign stirs accusations of religious coercion, segregation

A sign outside a row of synagogues directing women to walk on the other side of the street has turned this town near Jerusalem into a front line in the raging national debate about the imposition of strict social codes by ultra-Orthodox zealots.

Beit Shemesh, a community of 86,000 about a half-hour's drive from Jerusalem, has a growing ultra-Orthodox population. It has become a cauldron of tension in recent days, with crowds of black-cloaked men assaulting television crews and facing off with police, pelting them with rocks and eggs.

The trigger for the violence was a wave of Israeli media reports about ultra-Orthodox Jews in the town who had put up the controversial sign and hounded local schoolgirls, spitting and hurling abuse at them for what they deemed insufficiently modest dress.

The plight of one frightened girl, 8-year-old Naama Margolese, was highlighted Friday in a prime-time television report, along with the sign ordering sidewalk segregation. The report fueled the debate in Israel over attempts to limit the public visibility of women -- a growing trend that has generated an angry backlash.

Tuesday night, thousands of Israelis gathered in Beit Shemesh to protest religious coercion and the attempts to sideline women. Some held up signs that said: "Exclusion of women is my red line."

In broadcast remarks hours earlier, President Shimon Peres urged people to attend the rally. "We are fighting for the soul of the nation and the essence of the state," he said.

The sign, posted in front of three synagogues in a strictly religious section of Beit Shemesh, said, "Women are requested to move to the sidewalk across the street, not to pass near the synagogues, and certainly not to loiter on this sidewalk, which serves the synagogue-goers." An arrow pointed the way to the other side of the street.

After the media reports and a directive announced Sunday by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, the sign was removed by city workers, but it was promptly replaced by activists with cardboard placards and a large banner that carried a similar message in bold red letters.

The prohibition on passage of women near the synagogues stems from a strict interpretation of religious restrictions on women mixing with men. Women enter the synagogues through separate doors and pray in separate sections.

The developments in Beit Shemesh have been denounced by Israeli Cabinet ministers, rights advocates and moderate Orthodox leaders, who described the actions as a perversion of Jewish law and an assault on civil rights, particularly the rights of women.