Hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews, some wearing yellow stars or the uniforms of Holocaust death camp inmates, demonstrated Saturday against what they called media attacks against them over their efforts to segregate the sexes in public.
The bearded men and young boys in Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox Mea Shearim neighbourhood were ostensibly gathered to protest the jailing of a member of their community for leading vigilante attacks against a local religious bookshop, which was considered not religious enough by hardliners.
But ultra-Orthodox news website Kikar Hashabbat said that the main purpose of the rally had become that of fighting back against "incitement against the ultra-Orthodox public".
Jews in Germany and countries occupied by the Nazis were forced to wear yellow stars to identify themselves in public. Kikar Hashabbat said that wearing them at the rally was "an exceptional protest measure".
A witness said that a television news crew was shoved by protestors but police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said there were no incidents or arrests.
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Israeli TV channels have screened images from the town of Beit Shemesh, where hardline residents are waging a sometimes violent gender segregation campaign, which showed an ultra-Orthodox man in Beit Shemesh spitting at a woman and others hurling verbal abuse at an eight-year-old schoolgirl.
The scenes have prompted outraged newspaper editorials and vows from politicians to get tough with troublemakers.
"The phenomenon of the exclusion of women from ultra-Orthodox streets is an act of intolerable barbarism," Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman said in an interview published on Friday by Israel's top-selling Yediot Aharonot newspaper.
"It is inconceivable for the state to continue financing those who defy it and for the ultra-Orthodox to continue receiving subsidies, such as free (religious) schooling for their children," he said.
Beit Shemesh, a town of 80,000 near Jerusalem, has witnessed a string of clashes between ultra-Orthodox activists and other residents.
On Thursday night, hundreds of activists torched refuse bins, blocked streets and stoned police sent to disperse them, police said.