Warning signs have been posted on the building of two major health clinics in an ultra-Orthodox Beit Shemesh neighborhood, telling women who are dressed immodestly to stay away.
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The signs, plastered outside on the clinic buildings of government-funded health maintenance organizations Meuhedet and Leumit, read: “Dire Warning: It is forbidden to walk on our streets in immodest dress, including slutty clothing worn in a religious style.” It is signed “residents of the neighborhood.”
The wording of the signs reflect an escalation in the ongoing “modesty wars” in the city of Beit Shemesh. While modesty signs are not uncommon in Beit Shemesh, they generally make the “request” to dress appropriately, rarely the “warning.” In addition, this sign’s reference to indecent or provocative dress that conform to Orthodox Jewish guidelines is also highly unusual. It evokes the tension not only between the extreme Haredi elements in the city and the secular population, but also between the extremist Haredis and the modern Orthodox/religious Zionist population. That conflict came to a head and became a national issue in late 2011 when young religious Zionist girls were harassed at the Orot Banot school.
Dr. Eve Finkelstein, who works at another Beit Shemesh branch of the Meuhedet clinic, learned of the signs from a frightened patient. When she read the signs, she found them “aggressive” and “shocking.”
The clinics in the Heftzibah neighborhood targeted in this latest spurt of modesty policing serve patients seeking specialist treatment from around the area - they do not only serve the local Haredi population.
“My patient was referred to a doctor there, and when she saw the signs, she was too scared to get out of the car,” Finkelstein said. She then complained to the clinic. “I told them that think it's disgraceful and I think they have the responsibility to be available to anyone of any sex, race, or religion, and patients shouldn’t feel threatened when walking into the doctor’s office.”
Finkelstein is a plaintiff in a lawsuit filed by a group of Beit Shemesh women against municipality seeking damages after they reportedly experienced threats and violence from modesty-policing Haredi elements. They are suing on the grounds that the municipality’s refusal to remove modesty signs in the city has bred an atmosphere that threatens women. The two sides are currently in mediation proceedings, which they are forbidden to discuss publicly.
After Finkelstein learned of the signs, a fellow plaintiff, Nili Phillip, contacted Meuhedet through the wall on their Facebook page, asking for an immediate removal of the signs. The answer she received: “It is important for us to emphasize that there is no connection between the Meuhedet health maintenance organization and the signs you refer to. We are talking about a private initiative by citizens who posted the signs on the clinic walls.”
Phillip replied back: “I understand what you are saying - please remove the signs as quickly as possible and clarify who hung the signs and report them to the police, as this act represents sexual harassment of your patients.”
Finkelstein, who has worked for a variety of health organizations in Beit Shemesh says that these signs have been up for more than a week, and that clinics hesitate to take down such signs, “because they are scared. Behind these signs is not only the threat of violence but a threat that if they are taken down, they will lose their patients.”
Phillip said that she had heard from her contacts within the Haredi community that there could be a backlash against their lawsuit. She might expect signs plastered in their neighborhoods in an “all-out war, with a sign on every balcony” and with messages relating to the legal dispute.
While she said it was difficult to target individuals who might choose to hang signs off their private property, the case of the clinics is different. “It’s one thing to have these signs on a private balcony, another on a public health clinic,” Phillip said.