The Supreme Court has instructed the attorney general to intervene to ensure the removal of signs in the city of Beit Shemesh instructing women to dress “modestly,” over three years after a five-year court battle ended in an order to do away with them.
Justice Hanan Melcer said last week that Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit had to come up with a new plan to enforce the ruling within 90 days. The court gave authorities 30 days beyond that to remove the signs, after which the municipality will be fined for any infractions.
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The population of Beit Shemesh is largely split between Modern Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, Jews. The municipality and the police have each accused the other of making it difficult to enforce the order to remove the signs.
In 2013, the Israel Religious Action Center, the advocacy arm of the Reform movement in Israel, filed a suit against the municipality and the mayor on behalf of four Modern Orthodox women, all residents of Beit Shemesh, for refusing to remove the signs, as required by a government report published that year. Some of the 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 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 the city three weeks to remove the illegal signs and to act more vigilantly against offenders. After the mayor did not comply with that ruling either, in 2017 the Jerusalem District ordered the city to pay 10,000 shekels ($2,860) a day in fines until all the signs were removed. The city appealed to the Supreme Court, which ordered it to remove all the signs within weeks.
In 2020, the petitioners provided the court with documentations of many such remaining signs in the city. The municipality said in response that it had tried to enforce the order to remove the signs, but that its resources were too limited. The city claimed that new signs were put up whenever any were removed, and that inspectors attempting to remove signs encountered disturbances by residents.