Top Court Orders All 'Offensive' Modesty Signs in Israeli City Removed

For years Beit Shemesh has allowed signs admonishing women to wear only long skirts and long sleeves and avoid any tight-fitting clothing

Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz
Judy Maltz

The High Court of Justice issued the final ruling on Monday in a five-year-long battle over women’s rights in Beit Shemesh, ordering the mayor to tear down all of the "offensive" modesty signs plastered around the city.

Mayor Moshe Abutbul was given until December 18 to remove all the eight signs remaining in the city.

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 in 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 population of Beit Shemesh is largely split between Modern Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, Jews.

In their suit, the plaintiffs argued that not only were the signs offensive and humiliating, but they also encouraged harassment and violence against women who chose to ignore them.

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 signsand 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 on Monday, as they read their ruling, that the exclusion of women will not be tolerated in any city in Israel.

“We who stand at the forefront of the war against exclusion of women in Israel see in this decision to remove all the modesty signs a major victory for the rule of law and for the rights of women to respect and equality,” said attorney Orly Erez-Likhovski, head of IRAC's legal department . “We will continue to monitor and fight against all attempts to exclude women in Israeli society.”

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.

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