Ultra-Orthodox Jewish demonstrators caused outrage on Sunday by dressing children as Holocaust victims to protest against what they see as persecution of devout Jews seeking gender separation in Israel.

A boy wearing a cloth cap and the sidecurls of an Orthodox Jew was the centrepiece of the Jerusalem protest late on Saturday.

His hands were raised in surrender and a yellow Star of David inscribed with Jude, Jew, in German, was sewn on his jacket. The image mimicked a memorable photo of a terrified Jewish boy during a roundup in the Nazi-occupied Warsaw Ghetto in World War Two.

Nazis, Nazis, some of the protesters shouted at police.

Other children and young men were dressed in replicas of striped concentration camp uniforms at the protest attended by hundreds of ultra-Orthodox Jews in traditional black garb.

Prisoner uniforms and yellow patches with the word Jew written on them in German are shocking and appalling, Defence Minister Ehud Barak said in a statement.

The use of yellow patches and small children raising their hands in surrender crosses a red line which the ultra-Orthodox leadership, who are largely responsible people, must not accept, he said.

EMOTIONAL DEBATE

Israel is in the grip of an emotional debate over attempts by Jewish zealots to impose and enforce gender separation in ultra-Orthodox neighbourhoods and other public places.

Much of the controversy has stemmed from ultra-Orthodox men trying to force women to sit in the back of public buses in deference to religious beliefs against any mixing of the sexes in public.

President Shimon Peres has described the debate as a battle for the soul of the Jewish state.

The issue jumped to the top of the public agenda in Israel nearly two weeks ago when an eight-year-old girl complained on television that ultra-Orthodox men spat at her on the way to school, accusing her of dressing immodestly.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who has political alliances with ultra-Orthodox parties but is facing mounting public anger over such incidents, has vowed to crack down on zealots who harass women.

Posters at the protest accused the Zionist entity of carrying out an unprecedented attack on the 'Haredi' community, referring to ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Some groups within the ultra-Orthodox community do not recognise Israel, saying such a state can only be established with the coming of the Messiah.

You will not be able to impose on us sinful (Western) culture. We will remain faithful to the laws of Holy Torah, read one protest sign at Saturday's demonstration.

Speakers at the protest singled out an activist, jailed for vandalising a computer store he deemed heretical in an ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood, as a victim of what they called government persecution.

Avner Shalev, chairman of Yad Vashem, Israel's national memorial to the six million Jews killed by the Nazis, said the protesters' use of Holocaust imagery was a profound insult to survivors.

This is totally unacceptable and degrades Jewish values, Shalev said on Israel Radio.

(Editing by Andrew Heavens)