The head of the Knesset Committee for the Advancement of the Status of Women, MK Aida Touma-Sliman, accused the police of failing to implement the rule of law in Beit Shemesh, the site of an ongoing fight to remove so-called modesty signs in radical Haredi neighborhoods and make the areas safe for members of the non-ultra-Orthodox public.
Her comments were made during a tour of Beit Shemesh, conducted by the committee to examine the situation in such neighborhoods, following efforts by the municipality and the police to remove signs demanding that women dress conservatively.
But despite several operations in recent days conducted by the Beit Shemesh Municipal Authority with the backing of the police, some modesty signs have reappeared.
At the bottom of Nahar Hayarden Street, a major thoroughfare traversing Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet, one of the most radical neighborhoods in the city, a sign telling women to dress modestly has been hung at the top of a prominent building where a much-larger sign used to hang.
In other parts of Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet, stickers have been plastered on bus stops, road signs and charity boxes that say: “Stop – Haredi neighborhood! Passage is only with modest clothing!” Similar warnings have been hung in the same neighborhood where some of the larger signs used to be, or simply spray-painted onto walls.
On Hazon Ish Street in the Nahala U’Menucha neighborhood, a sign telling women to walk on the other side of the road has been replaced with one that reads: “Women are requested to refrain from using/tarrying on this sidewalk.”
During the tour, MKs Aida Touma-Sliman, Leah Fadida, Mossi Raz and Ksenia Svetlova walked around one of the most notorious junctions in Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet, accompanied by activists and members of the press.
Large numbers of Haredi residents then began gathering at the junction. While some residents shouted, several women engaged a few of the MKs in conversation.
At one point, two activists removed signs that had been posted during the tour. Four of the MKs then posed to be photographed with one of the signs.
“People gathered around and we felt intimidation and threatened, and a feeling that ‘This is our territory and soon we will eject you from here,’” Touma-Sliman told The Jerusalem Post
She expressed concern that residents felt able to act in a threatening manner toward members of the tour, even though it was a formal visit by a Knesset delegation.
“I tried to imagine to myself – what it would be like if I was a woman by myself, without the security personnel, without it being a formal tour of the Knesset, and I am sure that they would have been unrestrained in such a situation.”
Touma-Sliman also said that she felt the issue was beyond that of modesty or discrimination against women, and that radical elements of the neighborhood were using these issues “to take control, to impose its order and its grasp of a specific territory.”
“The law-enforcement agencies, whether it is the municipality or the police, are not doing enough here,” she said. “They’ve let it develop to a level where it could explode... I didn’t see one policeman in any area we got to. This means the police aren’t present, not enforcing [the law].”
Many residents, particularly women from the city’s non-Haredi neighborhoods, have spoken about their fears of going into radical neighborhoods, describing the areas as “the casbah” and “the heart of darkness.” Several have said they have been spat at and harassed as they passed through.
Nahar Hayarden Street is a particular problem, since it connects different parts of the city and is for some the only route available, necessitating that they pass through the radical neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet.
Over the course of several years, the Beit Shemesh Magistrate’s Court, followed by the Jerusalem District Court, and eventually the Supreme Court, all ordered the city to remove the offending signs.
The municipality did eventually make some efforts to remove them, but they were swiftly replaced. Last month, the Supreme Court issued an ultimatum to the Beit Shemesh Municipal Authority to remove the signs by December 18, threatening to imprison the mayor and other municipal officials for contempt of court if they failed to do so.
Miri Shalem, one of the activists who has led the campaign against the signs and who was present on the tour, acknowledged that the problem of the radical elements in Beit Shemesh was complex and hard to solve.
She said however that harsher punishments for law breakers, including imprisonment, should be tried in order to try to create a deterrent effect, adding that fines imposed for illegally hanging signs should be collected.
The director of the Beit Shemesh municipal authority told the MKs that some 700 fines had been handed out to residents for hanging signs, but would not say how many have been collected. Activists allege that very few have actually been paid.
“At the end of the day, we need to punish them stronger,” said Shalem. “If they would impose fines and ensure that they are paid then this would be more effective. And if the fines aren’t paid, then this shows that there is no control over these areas.
The police did not respond to a request for comment by press time.