Orthodox Growth Tests Multiculturalism in Flashpoint Beit Shemesh

Scandal-Ridden City Is Test Case for Israeli Society

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By Nathan Jeffay

Published January 26, 2014, issue of January 31, 2014.
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Next to a heavily-Haredi area, a partially built mall stands abandoned. Its development has been on hold for several years, following protests by Haredim who objected to the fact that it would bring non-Haredim, including women in modern attire, to “their” neighborhood. There are shops in Beit Shemesh where signs urge modest dress — and in some places signs are posted to loom large on the public sphere and mark out territory.

In one spot, a huge sign that Haredi activists mounted on a wall attempts to delineate turf and goes beyond requesting modesty. “Welcome to a Haredi neighborhood and shopping center,” it announces. Here women are “required” to dress modestly — and are given some specific directions on what this means.

Sometimes, sensitivities over dress have led to violence. There have been reports of self-appointed modesty police reprimanding women whose clothing they consider to be contrary to religious wear. In 2011 an 8-year-old girl was famously spat at because of her supposed immodesty. A few months later a Haredi man threw a stone at Nili Phillip, a 46-year-old patent attorney, when Phillip cycled in a religious neighborhood. “I was wearing cycling shorts and a cycling jersey with red — not acceptable dress in that community,” she recalled in an interview with the Forward.

Non-Haredim are furious that the signs have not been removed. They say that this points to a situation whereby the Haredi-run municipality is allowing Haredi activists to break the law to promote their ideology.

Phillip and three other women have turned to the courts to demand the removal of modesty signs. She believes that by not taking them down, the city “harbors an environment that is basically a green light for bullies to cause problems for women, and the city has done nothing to protect us.”

At the city council, Shmuel Greenberg, leader of the United Torah Judaism party and deputy mayor until the election was nullified, said that the hanging of a sign “doesn’t bother me and it doesn’t bother others.” However, he maintained that he is opposed to the signs on principle, and claimed that the municipality has removed all but one.

In his interview with the Forward, Greenberg placed the blame for this push toward more Haredi standards in the public sphere on hard-line “zealots” who he claimed number no more than 20 men. He said that he could have easily increased the Haredi character of the city, but he didn’t. “I’ve been in charge of transport for the last five years and could have decided to close this or that street on the Sabbath, but I have not and I don’t want to.”

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