Group of Beit Shemesh Women Take on Religious Extremism

Activists came upon billboard devoid of women and decided to fight back.

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Eve Finkelstein, a Beit Shemesh doctor, and her friend Esther (an alias) first encountered the billboards as they were driving down the Beit Shemesh's main access road. The billboards surrounded a construction site of a new condominium project being built by Zemach Hammerman. The project wasn't marketed in the ultra-Orthodox community and isn't located in a Haredi neighborhood. And yet, among the pictures of men and children, not a single woman or a teenage girl can be found on the billboard.

"This area is totally secular," Esther explained. "It has malls and pictures of Bar Refaeli, it isn't a Haredi neighborhood. I told Eve: let's stick pictures of women and girls among the men and children. A day later, she went to measure the size of the characters on the sign and I went to the printers to choose from stock photos."

At 7:00 P.M. on Sunday, Esther, Finkelstein, Nili Phillip (a women's rights activist), seven other women and one man gathered at the sign and filled in the missing women. Near a man and boy they added a girl, near a suited man they placed a smiling woman, and elsewhere they added a picture of a curly-haired girl holding a basketball.

"I sent several Whatsapp and Facebook messages to acquaintances, and asked as many women who could to come," Phillip said with excitement. "We weren't afraid at all. It is something cute, we didn't deface the signs. It only added to the advertisement and made it a lot more beautiful."

The exclusion of women from Beit Shemesh public spaces isn't, of course, funny or nice. Esther, who grew up in Beit Shemesh says: "I went to sleep in Beit Shemesh and woke up in Mea She'arim. A new status quo is being created. These problems exist in Jerusalem; I don't want them in my city." Esther defines herself as secular but says that the population in Beit Shemesh is mixed, and that there are many Haredim that don't ally themselves with the extremists.

"Ultra-Orthodox people that settle in Beit Shemesh have made a decision to live in a pluralistic city – we will ensure that it stays that way."

Beit Shemesh's mixed demographics are what led Phillip, an engineer who immigrated from Canada and defines herself as religious, to settle there 13 years ago. Phillip used to buy her children toys and clothes in the Haredi neighborhoods, until five years ago when Haredim blocked her then 14-year-old daughter's way, spat at her and called her a "shiksa" (Yiddish for non-Jewish woman). Sometime later a Haredi man spat at her while she was jogging in a skirt. Two years ago, a rock thrown by a Haredi man hit her head for the first time. Phillip was wearing a helmet but the incident left her stunned. She filed a complaint with the police but no one was arrested.

But only once Vered Daniel was assaulted in a Haredi neighborhood last June did Phillip decide she had enough, filing a complaint with the police against the "modesty signs" that were hung around the town. "I decided I could stay silent no further. The municipality took down the signs, and then put them back up again the next day. I am a marathon runner; I said okay, I have patience. I'm going to be a nudnik, a pain in the butt."

Phillip enlisted other residents, and filed a petition against the "modesty signs." The Beit Shemesh Magistrate Court sent them to a mediation process with the city but nothing came of it. Phillip is now waiting for the legal proceedings to resume. In the meanwhile she is content with little steps such as the sticker initiative. "I hope to wake people up," she said. "and say that something not normal and wrong is taking place in the city and that we mustn't be complacent. It is easy to blame the extreme Haredim, but remaining silent and indifferent is the real problem. There will always be extremists, but its society's responsibility to say, no way, what's going on here?"

In response, Zemach Hammerman said, "The Nofiya project that Zemach Hammerman is building at the main entrance to Beit Shemesh is a 340-unit housing project based on a unique concept. The project targets the entire population, and is marketed with a variety of changing advertising. In one advertising campaign pictures of girls were included."

Haredi man walks by the billboard in the entrance to Beit Shemesh after stickers of women and girls were added.Credit: Emil Salman

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