A ‘Sign’ of Trouble: Battle Over Women’s Exclusion in Beit Shemesh Heats Up

Tensions over women's exclusion in the central-Israel city, which made headlines late last year, are revived through a battle over a sign asking that women walk on the other side of the street.

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There’s a cat-and-mouse game happening in front of a Beit Shemesh synagogue this summer between ultra-Orthodox extremists and activists fighting the exclusion of women.

More precisely, the game is continuing. It all began back in December, when the issue of women’s exclusion in Beit Shemesh was in the headlines, activists targeted a sign outside a synagogue in the Nachala Umenucha neighborhood asking that women walk on the other side of the street and not ‘dawdle’ on the sidewalk outside the place of worship.

Then, when municipal inspectors accompanied by police took down the sign, haredi residents nearby called the police “Nazis” and some threw rocks at them, and then attacked news crews who were covering the event.

At the time, Haaretz reported that:

Less than two hours after the sign was removed, Beit Shemesh residents put up a new one. They said it had to stay up since it had been posted on the orders of the neighborhood rabbi.

Binyamin Jacobs, who lives near the site, said the point of the sign is to keep women from dawdling on the sidewalk in front of the synagogue, not to keep them off the street altogether.

"That's because there's an events hall near the synagogue," Jacobs said. "Women often gather near the entrance and block [the street], that's it. But they're obsessed with this sign."

Jacobs said that every few nights, secular youths from outside the neighborhood come to deface the sign, and in the morning the ultra-Orthodox residents clean it off.

There hasn’t been much heard of the sign since. Until Nili Philipp came along. Philipp is a Canadian-Israeli engineer, currently working in patent law and a mother of five, who has lived in Israel for 20 years, 12 of them in Beit Shemesh. When she saw on a friend’s Facebook page last week that the sign was currently up and undisturbed, she was enraged. She filed a complaint with the police, and encouraged her friends and neighbors to do the same and complain to the municipality. Spray-painting the sign isn’t the answer, she says - the people of Beit Shemesh shouldn’t have to resort to vandalism or vigilantism. They must, instead, force the authorities to apply the law everywhere in the city.

“This sign is illegal,” Philipp said. “When I called the municipality to complain they said it has been up for a long time and didn’t see the point of taking it down. To me, the fact that this is the situation and they have turned a blind eye to it, just underscored how grave the situation was.”

When the media was tipped off to her police complaint a reporter called the municipality for comment on Thursday afternoon. The sign was taken down hours later.

But by Friday, a new sign - a replica of the earlier one, was back up. Philipp says she intends to file her complaint again - and if necessary, again and again.

She has decided that it was a key battle in the city. The sign, in front of a synagogue on Hazon Ish Street.. Although it is clearly located in a haredi neighborhood, it is in the heart of the city, next to a major thoroughfare that must be travelled to enter or exit that part of Beit Shemesh - she herself, had rocks thrown at her when she was riding her bicycle on the street, not an uncommon situation. In addition, Philipp points out that many of the major health HMOs have clinics near the synagogue, and women who are travelling there for health services they cannot get elsewhere must walk by. Her daughter travels there every month to get her braces adjusted at the dental clinic, and if she travels there by bus, she has to walk under the sign.

She stresses that she is not anti-Haredi, and has some very good Haredi friends and colleagues who “are as appalled by and abhor this sign as much as I do” although “they choose to remain silent” publicly. Philipp herself is not enthusiastic about appearing in the media, but she says she knows public pressure is the only thing that will push the municipality to take action, and after taking a behind-the-scenes role over the past year, she is now willing to step out front.

“Some people are saying to me that its just a sign what do I care: it’s a stupid sign, ignore the sign. But I won’t. It is an overt statement that the bullies are in charge and the rules of the state don’t apply in this neighborhood. It is important for the extremists to make these statements. Putting up these signs is their technique of asserting their power. To me it is that much more important that rule of law is upheld and we have to demand that democracy apply everywhere. This sign is a fundamental breach of human rights, I would fight it if it weren’t directed at women, if it were directed at Ethiopians or Ashkenazi men. this is not acceptable, especially in the wake of increasing violence.”

It is concern over escalating violence that truly concerns her. She says she loves Beit Shemesh, that it is “an amazing place and an amazing city” but that she fears what will happen if the extremists are allowed to fully flex their muscles.

“We’ve had women violently attacked here - in the past, and only two weeks, ago, a woman with a baby in her arms was attacked by a mob. What’s next?”

The dire situation of the fire service in Israel was only taken seriously, she says because so many people were killed. In her opinion, there is danger of a disaster in Beit Shemesh as well. “We are pre-Carmel fire here in Beit Shemesh and people are afraid. I don’t buy the argument that that ‘it is in their neighborhood, they can do what they want.’ It can’t be allowed to be that way. It is not acceptable that there is any neighborhood in a democratic state that cordons itself off and says the rules of democracy don’t apply here.”

And so, Philipp has been calling the municipality on Sunday ever since she learned the sign went up again - “So far, no answer.” She has also contacted city council members, and posted a picture of the new sign on Facebook. If nothing is done, she will file another complaint with the police, as will her friends and neighbors.

“We’re not going to ignore it any more. We’ve been ignoring too many things for too many years. We deeply care about this community. It has become family, there’s no better place in Israel to live. We are fighting because we love this city. It’s worth fighting for.”

A sign in Beit Shemesh asking women to walk on the other side of the street from a nearby synagogue. Credit: Michael Lipkin
Nili Philipp, on her way to file a complaint with the Beit Shemesh police.Credit: Michael Lipkin