And Those Who Enable Them
In the 10 years I’ve lived in Beit Shemesh, I have seen things I thought I’d never see. I’ve seen signs telling women what to wear and signs ordering them to walk down a specific staircase. I’ve seen young girls spit on and called shiksas. I’ve been spat on, for trying to protect these girls.
This is a story about runaway extremism. About the apathy of the local authorities and the silence of local religious leadership. It is a story in which the heroines are a few courageous women dedicated to stopping these acts, and whose efforts have brought together a motley crew with whom I toured the city’s landscape of modesty signs with a Christian Arab Israeli member of the Knesset along with a group of Jewish women and men. That tour was one of the strangest and most inspiring experiences of my life.
Tensions in Beit Shemesh, a suburb west of Jerusalem, began over a decade ago, when groups from the most insular ultra-Orthodox Jewish sects settled in a newer section of the city, Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet. This neighborhood abuts an established Religious Zionist neighborhood where women, both native Israeli and immigrants like me, have made a home for our religious Zionist families.
Signs declaring “MODEST DRESS ONLY!” began popping up around town. Teenagers were harassed by ultra Orthodox men for hanging out in group. On a few occasions, men threw rocks.
Most famously, the local religious Zionist girls’ school and its students were subjected to regular yelling, spitting and vandalism by grown men in an effort to convince the school to vacate the premises.
A group of women, all of whom had endured physical or verbal assault, decided to try to end this harassment. They attempted to work with the city, and were all but ignored.
And so, the women turned to the law, filing a civil suit against the signs.
Throughout all this, the women and their supporters faced skepticism and criticism. Local politicians and residents
‘Cultural sensitivity is only ever used to justify oppression of women.’
RISING TENSIONS: A delegation surveys the scene in Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet.