Israel is often in the news — but a recent controversy has drawn the world’s attention to the Jewish state for reasons that have nothing to do with the Arab-Israeli conflict.

Beit Shemesh is a Jerusalem suburb with a significant population of ultra-Orthodox Jews. Within this population there is a small number of overzealous, intolerant individuals who have become increasingly aggressive in trying to impose their beliefs on others. The most visible way they do so is by harassing women on the street who they see as not conforming to the Jewish ideal of modest dress.

For months, they had been harassing one young girl, eight-year-old Naama Margolese. Naama and her family are themselves Orthodox Jews who dress, by any reasonable standard, modestly but not modestly enough to satisfy the narrow, strict standards of the extremists. As her mother walked Naama to school, groups of men spat at the two and hurled vile insults at them. In late December, this came to light in the Israeli media and little Naama, who had endured so much for so long, became a symbol for Israel’s concern over the abuse of women and girls by these hateful religious extremists.

All people of good will should be able to agree that this attack was despicable, and that those who perpetrated it have placed themselves outside the bounds of civilized society. The idea of spitting at and insulting an eight-year-old girl for “immodesty” is absurd and repugnant, just as the idea of attacking any woman for such a charge should be alien to a free society. This is the sort of thing that routinely happens in totalitarian states like Iran or Saudi Arabia not in free, democratic Israel.

Thankfully, the Israeli press, the Israeli government, as well as Jewish religious organizations everywhere, were quick to speak out. Israeli Prime Minister Netanyahu ordered law enforcement to crack down on violence and harassment, and told his cabinet that “neither harassment nor discrimination have any place” in Israel. The Orthodox Jewish organization AISH addressed the culprit directly: “How dare you reject the Torah's way of ‘love your fellow man’ and instead erect barriers of hate and intolerance.” In the Jerusalem Post, David Harris of the American Jewish Committee wrote, “Whoever would spit on a young child in the name of religion blasphemes faith.” Meanwhile, public protests against the attack and the threat of religious extremism drew tens of thousands of Israelis, religious and secular alike.

The attack on poor Naama Margolese shows, some say, that Israel like the Islamist countries that surround it is in danger of being taken over by religious extremists bent on enforcing their beliefs upon others. But the Jewish state bears little resemblance to its neighbors. It is blessed with robust, longstanding democratic traditions and institutions. When hateful, anti-social behavior of this kind occurs in Israel it is quickly condemned, not just by the government, but by society at large, and measures are taken to ensure it does not happen again. Arab states have no history of democracy; there, and in other countries governed by the harsh dictates of radical Islam, deeply discriminatory measures are not only tolerated, but written into law and enforced by the state.

It is not the existence of hateful extremists in a society that determines the health of that society. If that were the case, no society would measure up, since all have radical elements. The true measure is how it deals with those extremists. In its reaction to the repulsive attack on young Naama Margolese, Israel, whatever its flaws, has proven itself to be what Naama’s attackers are not civilized and fundamentally decent.

With prayers for shalom, peace,
Rabbi Yechiel Eckstein