For years, the Sefardi haredi mayor of Beit Shemesh, Rabbi Moshe Abutbol, has refused to order city workers to remove illegal gender-segregation and modesty signs posted by haredim. Last year, a court was so fed up with Abutbol's behavior that it fined the city. Abutbol still refused to remove the signs and, because this is Israel where rule of law isn't always followed, nothing happened – until now.
Above: An illegal modesty sign in Beit Shemesh tells women near a major haredi synagogue to walk on the opposite side of the street from men (file photo; 2011)
Reform Rabbi Anat Hoffman, who heads the Reform Movement's Israel Religious Action Center (and who also head Women of the Wall, a position she's held for more than two decades) writes:
The "Modesty Signs" Saga Continues...
The word for "sign" in Hebrew is "shelet." It shares its root with the Hebrew word "shlitah," which means "control." You don't need to be a professional linguist to see the connection between the two. The messages we read on signs--on the road, in shops and restaurants--affect the way we act and think.
In places like Beit Shemesh, officials have used street signs like these to control the religiosity of the entire public sphere by policing where women walk and what they wear.
For two years now IRAC has been dueling with the Beit Shemesh municipality over these so-called "modesty signs." Last January, Judge David Gidoni ruled that they violate women's civil rights, and, in a first-of-its-kind decision, fined the municipality for refusing to take them down.
Beit Shemesh paid the fines, but refused to remove the signs. So we did what every respectable civil rights organization would do: we sued them again.
IRAC's second lawsuit, which we filed in May, asks the Administrative Court in Jerusalem to order Beit Shemesh's Mayor, Moshe Abutbul, to take down all the signs once and for all.
Next time we meet in court, on January 20, we will be bringing in some major support. Last month, the Attorney General's office decided to join our lawsuit, and they will be arguing side-by-side with Orly Erez-Likhovski, the Director of IRAC's Legal Department.
Judge Yogal Marzel, who will be hearing the case, is very familiar with the harm caused by discriminatory signs. He presided over IRAC's lawsuit in 2014 against two Israeli burial societies that refused to take down signs requiring men and women to sit separately during funerals. Judge Marzal ruled in favor of equality then, and we hope he will do so again next week.
There are lots of problems in Beit Shemesh that need fixing. Exposed women's ankles and strands of her hair sticking out from under head-coverings should not be what concerns the municipality and its mayor. The wheels of justice turn slowly. But they're turning. See you in court.
In real democracies, court orders like this are enforced by county sheriffs and police if necessary. But Israel is most certainly not a democracy that respects the rule of law, and cases like this one help prove it.
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