Israeli lawmakers descended Sunday on Beit Shemesh, a city that has come to epitomize the struggle over religious radicalization in the country, accusing municipal leaders of complicity in violating the rights of women there.
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The accusations were leveled during a fact-finding trip by the Knesset committee for the status of women, aimed at ascertaining why the city has failed to comply with recent court rulings that found it in violation of regulations prohibiting the exclusion of women from public spaces.
For the past five years, battles have been waged in the central Israeli city between ultra-Orthodox and Modern Orthodox residents. The main source of conflict has been so-called “modesty signs,” plastered around the city by ultra-Orthodox residents.
Some of the controversial signs instruct women how to dress, requiring them to wear long sleeves and long skirts and no tight-fitting clothing. Others admonish women to keep off the sidewalks near synagogues and yeshivas, where men tend to congregate.
The ultra-Orthodox account for about half the population of 110,000 in Beit Shemesh, and their share has grown rapidly in recent years.
Earlier this month, the High Court of Justice ordered the city to tear down all the remaining modesty signs in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods and instructed police to stand on guard to make sure that new signs were not put up to replace them. The city was given until December 18 to take down the signs.
Last week, Mayor Moshe Abutbul notified the court that no sooner had the signs been removed than new ones had put up in their place. He said he had no power to prevent this.
But following their tour on Sunday, the Knesset committee members accused the city of not enforcing the law vigilantly enough. The city had not bothered to put up a surveillance camera at an intersection where many of the new signs appeared, they said. In addition, they charged, the city had been lax about collecting fines from infringers.
“I did not see any police around here today, and I do not feel that there has been any enforcement,” said Aida Touma-Suliman, chair of the Knesset committee and a member of the Joint Arab List, during a wrap-up session at the end of the tour. She directed her comments at Matti Choteh, director-general of the municipality – the only representative of the city on the tour.
“What I see is a state within a state,” she continued, "without any laws, where women are oppressed. It is horrifying that the city and the police are not doing more.”
For Touma- Suliman, who found herself in the unusual position, as an Arab lawmaker, of trying to resolve a conflict between different denominations of Jews, it was a first-ever trip to Beit Shemesh. “I can say that I felt lots of tension in the air,” she remarked, “as well as a blatant attempt to intimidate us. If this is what I felt after just a few hours, I can only imagine what the women who live here full time must experience.”
The campaign to remove the controversial modesty signs has been led by a group of Modern Orthodox women, most of them immigrants from English–speaking countries. Nili Philipp, a driving force in the struggle, said that ever since the High Court ruled earlier this month that all the signs must be removed, she and members of her family have received death threats.
Philipp and her fellow activists joined the Knesset members on their trip through the city. The Knesset delegation included only representatives of the opposition parties, among them only one man. The trip was initiated by the Israel Religious Action Center, the local advocacy arm of the Reform movement, which has been representing Philipp and her cohorts in court.
Tensions flared when members of the Knesset delegation decided to get off the bus taking them around town to view some of the controversial signage up close. During their tour of the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet, lawmakers were confronted by angry residents demanding that they leave because they were not dressed modestly.
“If you don’t want to show us respect, then you can’t be here,” an ultra-Orthodox woman told Touma-Suliman.
“How would you feel,” Touma-Suliman shot back at her, “if I told you that you couldn’t come into my house if you didn’t take your head covering off because I find it offensive?”
The lawmakers were shocked to discover a pedestrian crossing at a main intersection in the neighborhood marked with the following words: “Cross with modest clothing.”
They found another sign near a synagogue directing men to the right and women to the left. After grabbing the sign, Touma-Suliman paraded around with it in the street. “I intend to hang this up in our Knesset committee room,” she said.
Philipp and another activist, with their own hands, proceeded to tear down some of the offensive signs.
Participants on the tour also discovered graffiti on the wall of a synagogue declaring: “No entrance for Reform [Jews].”
A group of ultra-Orthodox men congregated on a corner in an attempt to intimidate the group. Despite the tense mood, no violence erupted.
Philipp explained to the lawmakers that residents of Beit Shemesh had no choice but to pass through this neighborhood to reach other sections of the city. She said that she and her daughters were often spat on when they did.
Late last week, MK Israel Eichler from the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, urged Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein to call off the planned trip by the committee, terming it a “provocation.” Allowing Reform women to parade through an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, he said, was no different than allowing right-wing Jewish radicals to parade through an Arab town.
“The sole purpose of this trip is to spark a provocation for the media,” he alleged. “This trip will only advance the status of Reform women’s organizations.”
IRAC first filed suit against the city of Beit Shemesh and its mayor four years ago, demanding that they remove the modesty signs.
The Beit Shemesh Magistrate's Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs in January 2015 and ordered the municipality to pay the women damages for its negligence in handling the matter. Despite that ruling, the signs were not removed, and the plaintiffs were forced to take their suit to a higher court.
In June 2016, the Jerusalem District Court gave Abutbul three weeks to remove the illegal signs and to act more vigilantly against offenders. After the mayor did not comply with that ruling either, this past June, the Jerusalem District Court responded to a request submitted by IRAC and declared him in contempt of court. It ordered the city to pay 10,000 shekels ($2,860) a day in fines until all the signs were removed.
Abutbul tried to get the High Court to overturn this decision but failed, with the justices declaring earlier this month, as they read their ruling, that the exclusion of women will not be tolerated in any city in Israel.
Touma-Suliman said that she and the members of her committee had no intention of creating provocations. “We come to places where women feel threatened, excluded and victimized – that is our job,” she said.
In his defense, Chotem, the director-general of the city, said that plans were under way to put up surveillance cameras in the neighborhood where new signs had appeared. He noted, however, that a surveillance camera put up in another part of the city had already been sabotaged.
“Over the past month, we have gone out three times to remove signs, but within a day, the signs are back up,” he said.
Chotem said it was also important to be sensitive to the lifestyle of ultra-Orthodox Jews.
“I don’t want to hear about ‘cultural sensitivity,’” responded Touma-Sliman. “Whenever people talk about ‘cultural sensitivity,’ it’s because they want to legitimize oppression of women. Suddenly they’re ‘sensitive.’”
Touma-Sliman said she intended to meet with Minister of Public Security Gilad Erdan and discuss with him ways to better enforce the court decisions.