The Beit Shemesh Magistrate’s Court ruled on Sunday that the Beit Shemesh Municipality must remove prominent signs put up in central locations in the city warning women to dress modestly and not to linger in certain places, and awarded the four plaintiffs a combined total of NIS 60,000 in damages.
There have been signs on display in haredi (ultra-Orthodox) neighborhoods in the city for several years now, placed by staunchly conservative haredi synagogues and communal organizations, telling women to dress modestly in the particular area of the city where the signs were posted.
Some of the signs also instructed women not to tarry outside certain synagogues and other spots in haredi neighborhoods.
Beit Shemesh is home to a large haredi population, including several extremist and radical groups that have been responsible for incidents of harassment and violence over municipal issues in recent years.
In 2012, a group of female Beit Shemesh residents wrote to the municipality and requested that the signs be taken down since they contravened anti-discrimination laws and were not authorized by the city administration, a requirement for permanent signs.
According to Nili Philipp, one of the women who was party to the eventual law suit, the Beit Shemesh Municipality made “half-hearted” efforts to have some signs taken down, but once they were replaced shortly thereafter did nothing to have them taken down again.
Following the municipality’s failure to take the signs down, the four women, all of them modern-Orthodox, filed a law suit in the Beit Shemesh Magistrate’s court in 2013 with the help of the Israel Religious Action Center, the legal arm of the Reform Movement in Israel, demanding that the signs be removed.
Philipp said that it was repeated harassment and attacks by haredi extremists, often youth, against women passing by the areas in question that led to the decision to take the issue to court.
In Sunday’s ruling, the court said that the Beit Shemesh Municipality was guilty of severe negligence for not acting to remove the offending signs.
Judge David Gideoni ruled that the municipality’s refusal to remove the signs severely harmed the rights of women in the city, and that the municipality should compensate each of the plaintiffs NIS 15,000 for the distress that had been caused to them by this failure.
“The signs were designed to restrict women from using public spaces simply because they were women... and constitute a severe injury to the rights of women to equality and respect. The signs are also humiliating,” Gideoni said in his ruling.
“The signs create the expectation that they should be adhered and are likely to create the expectation or understanding that the area where the sign is placed belongs, in effect, to one specific population group in which its norms are applicable.
“This expectation is likely in certain circumstances to encourage and assist the creation of a social atmosphere in which one could interpret the signs as obligating a person to obey them and even to bring about enforcement activities, sometimes through violence,” the judge said.
From the facts brought to the court it appeared that the municipality and the mayor, Moshe Abutbul, accepted the presence of the signs and that they had not fulfilled their obligations to remove them.
he said. “The municipality and the mayor chose not to take any steps to enforce the authority and obligations incumbent upon them to remove the signs... they absolved themselves from this obligation...
and cannot be considered reasonable.”
The signs “bear an injurious and discriminatory message,” and “discriminate against women because they are women,” as well as cause “a severe injury to human dignity, equality and free choice and independence,” he said.
The municipality’s behavior allowed the ongoing infraction of the rights of women, and allowed a situation in which sections of the city were not subject to the rule of law, he added. “This rewards violence and is likely to encourage further violence.”
In response to the verdict, Philipp said she hoped other institutions in the city that have also instituted discriminatory and segregationist policies and signs would take note and be aware that they are subject to financial penalties.
“The mayor is supposed to represent law and order, but we were told we should just deal with and accept the situation. This is despicable behavior,” she told The Jerusalem Post
“These signs constitute sexual harassment 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year. These signs examining your dress, how tight your skirts are, how long they are. For the city to ignore these signs and allow them to remain in place was like being spat in the face,” she said.
The Beit Shemesh Municipality said in response that it had repeatedly taken the signs down but that they were replaced on each occasion, adding that taking the signs down had led riots.
“It is not within the power of the municipal security to deal with this complicated issue on an operational level, so we turned to the Israel Police to enforce the law.
“Unfortunately, the court did not manage to understand the complicated reality in Beit Shemesh which we are dealing with, and did not accept the claim of the municipality that concern for the public safety and the harm to the fabric of the delicate relations between different population groups in Beit Shemesh outweighed the immediate and repeated need to remove the signs,” it said.
The municipality complained that similar signs are present in other cities, such as Jerusalem, but that those local municipalities had not been sued.
“When emotions in the city calm down, the municipality will respect the court’s ruling in coordination and dialogue with all the population groups and will work with the Israeli police in order to enforce law and order,” it said.