Ultra-Orthodox Protesters Prevent Israeli City From Removing Modesty Signs, Despite Court Order

Signs urge women to dress modestly, keep off of sidewalks where men congregate ■ Beit Shemesh says removals suspended 'due to violent public disturbances'

Signs calling for the segregation of men and women spray-painted onto a stairway following the removal of so-called modesty signs, Beit Shemesh, Israel, December 11, 2017.
Jacob Goldberg

After the High Court of Justice ordered the city of Beit Shemesh to remove signs in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods urging women to dress modestly and keep off of sidewalks where men congregate, municipal inspectors removed the signs on Monday morning.

The inspectors were accompanied by a large number of police officers, but the city was forced to stop taking down the signs when confrontations broke out with Haredi residents.

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Dozens of ultra-Orthodox protesters came to the places where the signs had been put up to try to stop their removal. At the same time, others put up new signs on the street after the original ones had been removed.

“The city removed six signs out of eight put up in three places in Haredi neighborhoods in Beit Shemesh,” said city hall.

At police instructions, the city said it halted the operation “due to the violent public disturbances.” Removal of the signs has cost about 50,000 shekels ($14,200) so far, said the city.

A week ago, the High Court ordered Beit Shemesh to remove the signs by December 18. After a five-year battle over women’s rights in the city, the court ordered the mayor to tear down all of the “offensive” modesty signs plastered around town. To ensure that new signs were not put up as soon as existing ones were taken down, as has occurred in the past, the High Court ordered police to stand guard around the city over the next few weeks.

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.

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.

The High Court of Justice is scheduled to reconvene in late December and determine whether the mayor has complied with the latest ruling. Only then will it decide whether the city will be required to pay any of the fines previously imposed on it.

Orly Erez-Likhovski, the attorney who heads IRAC’s legal department, said that while lauding the removal of the signs, IRAC regrets that it took a long legal battle against the city and a ruling by the High Court to force the removal of the “offensive and humiliating signs” against women.

“The police must now demonstrate massive, regular presence in Beit Shemesh to prevent the signs being put up again and to prevent violence. We will continue to follow and fight the exclusion of women wherever it exists,” added Erez-Likhovski.