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The Fight Against ‘Immodesty Signs’ in Beit Shemesh

Nili Philipp (third from right) and other residents outside the Beit Shemesh court house / Courtesy of Nili Philipp

Beit Shemesh has featured prominently in the news over the past several years as a hot spot for violations against women and girls, from the Orot school scandal to several highly publicized assaults against women, to routine harassment of women in the city’s streets.

But June 16 marked a new phase in the struggle for gender equality in Beit Shemesh, three years after I was attacked by a Haredi man who threw a rock that hit me in the head as I cycled along a main thoroughfare, and two years after a mob of Haredi men attacked Vered Daniel, who was holding her infant in her arms at the time, alleging that she wasn’t dressed sufficiently modest, which prompted three other religious women and myself, all residents of Beit Shemesh, to demand that the city address the increasingly frightening attacks against women and girls.

With the help of our lawyer, Orly Erez Likhovsky from the Israel Religious Action Center, we sued the Beit Shemesh municipality for 100,000 shekel (29,200 US dollar) after they repeatedly ignored our pleas to remove the large and imposing illegal signs that harass and threaten women in public areas of the city. The signs loom over main commercial centers and are signed by the local leading Haredi rabbis, ‘requesting’ that women dress modestly. The signs also define modest dress: long sleeves, long skirts, high necklines, no pants, nothing tight. Other signs instruct women to avoid walking or lingering on certain sidewalks, public city sidewalks that were built and maintained with taxpayers money. Not coincidentally, in these very same areas where the illegal signs hang, women deemed insufficiently modest have been habitually harassed, threatened and attacked, lending strength to the thesis that one law violation abates another.

We had several reasons for requesting that the city remove the signs. First, the signs are illegal and intimidating. Their harassing message is an invasion of privacy and freedom. Second, they promote an atmosphere of anarchy by blatantly violating the rules of the State with the tacit approval of the municipality. Third, we wanted a clear public statement that violations of women’s rights wouldn’t be tolerated.

I’d like to be able to say that June 16 was an important day for women’s rights in Israel. After all, just a year ago Israel’s Attorney General published a report for advancing women’s rights that included a clause reminding municipalities of their obligation to remove any illegal and discriminatory signs, and here we were insuring that the good laws of the land were being enforced. Unfortunately it was more of an embarrassment. The statements by the city’s representatives brought no honor to our city, nor to the State of Israel, nor to the Jewish people. Here are some choice quotes from Mr. Matti Huta, the director of the municipality, in response to our lawyer’s questions:

“removing the signs is the the city’s inspectors most marginal task… the other tasks include handing out parking fines…” “It’s been two years since I’ve given an order to remove those signs” “I’m uncomfortable that we don’t remove the signs but we run a complex city, we have to balance everybody”

Mr. Huta made this statement after acknowledging that he’s required by law to remove the signs, evidently everybody doesn’t include women.

“There’s no point in removing the signs … it causes unnecessary disquiet. When I weigh these issues, I put the signs aside.” “It’s a very expensive endeavor, we have no way to deal with it.”

This point was repeatedly stressed throughout the hearing, referring to an incident years ago when a truck was allegedly vandalized while city inspectors attempted to remove one of the signs. Balancing the safety and well-being of women and girls against the cost of a truck exemplifies the municipality’s morally deficient attitude.

This gem came after our lawyer asked Mr. Huta what steps he’s taken to implement the Attorney General’s report: “I haven’t seen the report, I haven’t done a thing.”

Additionally, Mr. Huta claimed the municipality lacked the police support in dealing with any ensuing public disturbance as a result of removing the signs, a claim that was blatantly refuted in a meeting we held with the head inspectors of the entire Zion District and of the Beit Shemesh police department immediately following our hearing.

For the record, Mr. Huta is a licensed attorney, and judging by his knitted kipa, would be identified as modern orthodox, and this underscore the depth of the problem. It would be convenient to blame a handful of extremists for such chauvinistic behavior. Unfortunately it would be wrong. Too many mainstream Israelis are complacent when it comes to violations against women, and more than happily capitulate to extremist demands to further their own political and financial interests. It’s our hope that this lawsuit is a step forward in solving this problem, by conveying to Mr. Huta that insensitivity towards women is expensive.

On a brighter side, positive change is occurring. Following a horrendous assault on a young mother standing at a bus stop with her toddler this past April, local Haredi residents turned in the perpetrator to the police where he is still under arrest. Additionally, for the first time and in response to our pressure, the mayor issued a condemnation of the attack in the local Hebrew Haredi newspaper. Our next step is to push for the placement of security cameras in areas known to be problematic so that violators can be identified and convicted.

To conclude, there’s still much to do, but as we’ve already seen with former segregation on buses, legal action works. Our country has good laws. Protecting civic rights is often a simple issue of consistent law enforcement, and that means putting an end to the complacency. It means we have to stop accepting ‘minor’ legal infringements and initiate legal action where necessary.

Contrary to the city’s position, there’s a way to deal with it.

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