JERUSALEM President Shimon Peres urged Israelis on Tuesday to rally against ultra-Orthodox Jewish zealots trying to impose their strict religious code on a troubled town near Jerusalem.
"We are fighting for the soul of the nation and the essence of the state," Peres said in broadcast remarks at an event at his official residence.
The plight of an eight-year-old girl, who said last week that ultra-Orthodox men accused her of being dressed immodestly and spat at her as she walked to school, has added to growing concerns in Israel over a rise in religious extremism.
Shouting "Nazis, Nazis," religious protesters in Beit Shemesh, where the incident took place, on Monday clashed with police deployed to prevent zealots from attacking TV news crews reporting on tensions in the town, some 30 km (18 miles) from Jerusalem.
Authorities further stoked anger among the zealots, who advocate gender segregation, by removing a sign urging women to avoid certain streets in areas where the ultra-religious live.
Pro-democracy activists scheduled a rally for 6 p.m. (1600 GMT) in Beit Shemesh to protest against the segregation of women and violence that has included stone-throwing at reporters and police.
"Today is a test in which the entire nation will have to mobilise to rescue the majority from the claws of a small minority that is chipping away at our most hallowed values," Peres said.
"No person has the right to threaten a girl, a woman or any person in any way," he said. "They are not the lords of this land."
Some bus lines in religious neighbourhoods in Jerusalem are already segregated, with women sitting in the back of vehicles. Under Israeli law, they do not have to move to the rear but have drawn verbal abuse from male passengers for refusing to do so.
Some rabbis in Jerusalem have demanded that businesses avoid posting photographs of women or employing them in any of the shops patronised by the ultra-Orthodox.
Though numbering only 10 percent of Israel's mostly Jewish population of 7.7 million, the ultra-Orthodox wield political clout in a country where no one party has ever won a parliamentary majority and coalition governments have always ruled.
Many rabbis have insisted the incidents in Beit Shemesh were the acts of a fringe minority. Some rabbis, among them members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's leading ultra-Orthodox coalition partner, the Shas party, have joined him in condemning the violence.
Sarit Ramon, a secular resident of Beit Shemesh, said the situation in the town, which has a delicate mix of religiously observant immigrants living alongside Israelis embracing a more modern lifestyle, has been "catastrophic for years".
"This didn't start today, but now unfortunately when a child is harmed and spat at, it creates noise," she told Reuters. "But when I told that I was spat at a year and a half ago, people raised an eyebrow, and that was about it."
(Editing by Maria Golovnina)