Police in This Israeli City to Fight 'Gender Exclusion' With Security Cameras

Activists in Beit Shemesh are skeptical about the new steps: 'Girls are still growing up with modesty signs being part of their daily reality'

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A modesty sign instructing women not to walk on the sidewalk in Beit Shemesh, in July.
A modesty sign instructing women not to walk on the sidewalk in Beit Shemesh, in July. Credit: Ohad Zwigenberg
Or Kashti
Or Kashti

Beit Shemesh police will use the municipality’s security cameras to help enforce laws against the hanging of signs instructing women to dress modestly, the Justice Ministry said on Monday. According to the statement, the police will also step up patrols in areas considered “hot spots for gender exclusion in the city.”

Activists fighting the phenomenon criticized the decision, saying that it did not deal with existing signs in the town and said they were skeptical about whether it would bring any change on the ground. 

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The ministry’s statement followed a discussion with its representatives, the local authority, and police which included additional measures being considered that the city might implement. 

Around 11 years ago, women in Beit Shemesh started to fight the phenomenon of "modesty" signs in the city – printed posters and graffiti – instructing women how to conduct themselves in public spaces.

The signs and graffiti instruct women to refrain from walking on some sidewalks, ascend and descend staircases on the opposite side to men, not to stop next to synagogues, and generally dress modestly.

The women’s legal battle was conducted with the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), the legal and advocacy arm of the Reform movement, and the women won legal decisions at all court levels, including at the Supreme Court. 

Last July, the Supreme Court ruled that the continued existence of the signs “reflected a sorrowful chronicle of continued harm to women by criminal offenders” and instructed Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit and law enforcement agencies to try to formulate an agreed-upon solution to the issue.

Deputy Attorney General Gil Limon held two hearings with representatives from the Israel Police, the Beit Shemesh municipality, the Ministry of the Interior, the National Authority for Community Safety, and the State Prosecutor’s Office.

A statement released by the deputy attorney general said that “strenuous work is underway in Beit Shemesh to reduce the phenomenon of modesty signs and graffiti supporting exclusion in the town.” 

According to the statement, the city “imposes fines on owners of properties, where signs have been hung or graffiti promoting exclusion has been sprayed.” However, a source familiar with the issue said this has only happened on rare occasions.

The population of Beit Shemesh splits between Modern Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, Jews. The municipality and police have accused each other of making it difficult to enforce the order to remove the signs throughout the past years.

The deputy attorney general  also wrote that the municipality agreed to consider appointing a party on its behalf that will be entrusted with preventing the exclusion of women in the town, and with putting up signs on its behalf “explaining that public space is open to all without restriction.” 

Furthermore, the use of paint repellent coating will be considered “to prevent graffiti spraying in hot spots in the town.” The municipality also committed to publicizing the option of complaining anonymously about graffiti and hanging signs.

While the police said it would investigate complaints on this issue, women activists in Beit Shemesh have expressed disappointment at the outcome of the meetings.

“Since we began our battle about ten years ago, girls are still growing up with modesty signs being part of their daily reality. There is nothing new in the steps that the attorney general has announced. They allow for the continuation of this terrible phenomenon,” said Nili Philipp, a Beit Shemesh activist. “To really deal with the matter requires dealing with local political forces. Nobody wants to do that, so women pay the price.”

Another activist, Dr. Eve Finkelstein, said, “there has to be a decision to take active measures against people spraying graffiti and hanging signs – not to wait for further hearings. The announcement only strengthens those wishing to harm women.” Philipp and Finkelstein said that there are still many modesty signs and graffiti in the town and that the phenomenon is spreading to other ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.

IRAC director, attorney Orly Erez-Likhovski said “there is no basis to the working assumption that an intense effort is underway to reduce the phenomenon of modesty signs in Beit Shemesh. The situation in the town has remained as problematic as it was. Most of the measures that have been announced should have already been implemented in a country governed by a law that respects the rights of women.”

“We will have to wait and see whether there is any change in reality, whether the humiliating signs and graffiti will be removed and the rights of women in Beit Shemesh to move around freely and safely will be respected,” she said. 

A spokesman for the Justice Ministry said that the measures aimed to “reduce the phenomenon.”

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