Ultra-Orthodox Settlement Issues Modesty Code: Men and Women Can't Joke, Eat Together

Modi'in Ilit's 'modesty protocol' also states that men and women can't joke, eat together

The city hall of Modi'in Illit, West Bank.
Moti Milrod

The city of Modi’in Ilit, a West Bank settlement with more than 60,000 residents, most of them ultra-Orthodox Jews, issued a strict “modesty protocol” to municipal employees that restrict the freedom of women in the public sphere. Several employees complained that they were required to sign forms consenting to the guidelines, but the city said the protocol was not binding. It was drafted several years ago by leading Haredi rabbis.

The protocol prohibits men and women from joking around with one another and says that they should limit their conversations to work-related matters. They should not use greetings or expressions of farewell with members of the opposite sex that the guidelines consider overly casual or personal, such as “Shalom Lekha” or “Lehitra’ot. It also bars men and women from eating together. When they travel together in a van or bus, the men should sit in the front and the women behind them, although it recommends arranging for separate vehicles for men and women.

Many ultra-Orthodox men refrain from all physical contact with women other than members of their immediate family. Several years ago, the High Court of Justice addressed the issue of public buses specially designated for the ultra-Orthodox public. In 2011 the court ruled that sex segregation could not be legally imposed on passengers, but they could opt voluntarily to sit separately. About four months ago, rabbis in Modi’in Ilit ordered that “at least the first four rows on a bus not be occupied by women at all, even with their husbands.”

The guidelines were sent to every municipal employee, although not all employees have followed them. Sources said the fact that they were sent is an apparent violation of workplace discrimination laws, certainly in the public sector. The protocol, titled “Rules of Conduct for Workplaces,” was enclosed in envelopes along with 2018 tax forms that the employees received. Although some employees had been asked to sign the guidelines, the municipality later said that they were designed only to be brought to employees’ attention.

Responding for this story, the Modi’in municipality said guidelines “have been distributed and published for many years, including by email, and do not serve as a form for signature by employees.”

“In many workplaces, men and women work together,” the guidelines state. “Such a situation is liable to create serious obstacles due to the constant proximity of male and female workers.” The document calls the guidelines “the principles of maintaining distance between men and women that have been clear and simple among any Torah-observant person.”

The protocol says separate offices should be allocated to men and women and when this is not possible, “they need to sit at separate desks with a considerable distance between them, and under no circumstances should they sit at one desk, and the same applies to their sitting opposite one another.”

Men and women should not hand objects directly to one another and instead they should be passed to one another by being placed on the table. They should also not eat or drink together. Women, the document states, should also dress modestly, in keeping with Jewish religious law, or halakha.

Sources objecting to the guidelines said the integration of ultra-Orthodox employees into the workplace is welcome but does not justify discrimination against women.