Following a threat to lock up senior officials in the Beit Shemesh municipality for contempt of court, officials from the municipal authority removed so-called modesty signs from radical Haredi neighborhoods in the city on Monday morning.
Large numbers of police personnel arrived in the area to protect the municipal workers from potentially violent extremist Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) men who have gathered to protest the removal of the signs, and who tried to block roads in the vicinity.
Cranes were brought in to remove one of the most prominent signs on Nahar Hayarden Street, but somewhat ingeniously, the radicals who had placed the sign had apparently taken the trouble to spray paint the modest-clothing warnings directly on the wall of the building before placing the sign over it. When the sign was removed, the words were once again plain for all to see: “Passage [through the neighborhood] is only with modest clothing.”
At another location where signs for gender separation were removed from a staircase, Haredi activists simply daubed the word “women” on one side of the staircase, and “men” on the other.
The signs, which tell women to dress in a conservative fashion so as not to offend the sensitivities of the residents, are the subject of a long-running legal battle between anti-extremist activists in the city and the ultra-conservative members of the Haredi neighborhoods of Beit Shemesh.
Activists challenged the legality of the signs in court, leading to several rulings by the magistrates court, district court and ultimately the Supreme Court, ordering the Beit Shemesh municipality to remove the offending signs.
The municipality did remove the signs on several occasions but they were quickly replaced.
Ultimately, the Supreme Court in September upheld a fine of NIS 5,000 per day against the Beit Shemesh municipality imposed by the Jerusalem District Court earlier this year for contempt of court in failing to permanently remove the signs.
Last week, the Supreme Court gave a final ultimatum for the Beit Shemesh municipal authority to remove the signs by December 18.
The neighborhood in question, Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet, is home to some of the most radical elements in the haredi community who take a militant position on what is considered modest attire for women.
Non-haredi women have said they are afraid to enter the neighborhood, and those who do so report being spat on, cursed, and otherwise harassed. IDF soldiers entering the neighborhood have also been subject to severe harassment and intimidation.
A spokesman for the Beit Shemesh municipal authority said that six of the eight signs ordered removed by the court had been taken down on Monday, at a cost of NIS 50,000.
He also noted that another sign that had been removed on Nahar Hayarden Street had already been physically replaced, but that the police had decided not to remove it again due to violent disturbances from Haredi radicals who had gathered at the site.
Beit Shemesh Mayor Moshe Abutbul said that the signs have already been removed and replaced several times. He added that the city’s security service did not have the capabilities to carry out a removal operation every day, nor did the city have the finances to pay for such operations.
Abutbul therefore called on the police to enforce the court order, stating that “this is its purpose, and it has the capability and the required operational capacity [for the task].”