Members of the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women and Gender Equality who toured Haredi neighborhoods in Beit Shemesh on Sunday to examine the enforcement of recent court rulings on city violations of regulations prohibiting the exclusion of women from public spaces.
A few weeks ago, the High Court of Justice ordered the city to tear down all “modesty signs” in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, which segregate men and women in public spaces. The court instructed police to make sure that new signs were not put up in place of the old ones. The city was given until December 18 to take down the illegal signs.
The Beit Shemesh Municipality did tear down the offending signs, but new ones were put up within days. In the Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet neighborhood, a sign telling women to dress modestly has been hung at the top of a building. In other parts of the neighborhood, stickers have been plastered on bus stops, road signs and charity boxes, warning: “Stop – Haredi neighborhood! Passage is only in modest clothing!”
In another neighborhood, a sign telling women to walk on the other side of the street has been replaced with one that reads: “Women are requested to refrain from using/tarrying on this sidewalk.”
At the beginning of the tour, Committee Chairperson MK Aida Touma-Sliman (Joint Arab List) Arab List) said, “It is important for me to say that we are not here to protest or cause provocations. We are here to do our job; to go to places where women have told us they feel oppression and exclusion.”
Deputy Knesset Speaker MK Yisrael Eichler (United Torah Judaism) compared the women’s committee’s visit to Beit Shemesh to a visit by supporters of Rabbi Meir Kahane to Umm al-Fahm.
Last Thursday, MK Eichler sent a letter to Knesset Speaker Yuli Edelstein, calling on him to prevent the committee from visiting Beit Shemesh. “The only purpose of the tour is to provoke a media provocation,” Eichler wrote, suggesting “the tour will only promote the status of the Reform Women’s Organizations.”
“I ask you to prevent the use of Knesset committees to promote the Reform provocation planned under the auspices of the Knesset,” the Haredi MK requested.
Members of the Knesset were elected to serve the public and not to serve as PR people for reformist organizations with capital and hate and incitement funds. ”
MK Sliman was accompanied by MKs Mossi Raz (Meretz), Aliza Lavie (Yesh Atid), and, from the Zionist Camp, Leah Fadida, Michal Biran, Ksenia Svetlova, and Yael Cohen Paran. Speaking to women who are leading the campaign against the modesty signs in Beit Shemesh, Sliman said, “We are here so that you will know you are not alone.”
While the MKs were touring Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet, large numbers of Haredi residents began gathering around them. At the same time, some of the women who took part in the tour – leaders of the movement against the segregation of women in the city – tore down modesty signs that were plastered on a billboard. Then, at the instruction of security personnel, the MKs cut short their conversation with some of the local women, boarded their bus and left the area.
Later, during a meeting with female residents of Beit Shemesh, MK Sliman said, “We felt the tension in the air and the attempt to frighten us. If we felt threatened, I can only imagine what the female residents of the neighborhood and the city go through every day. It is important to understand that such phenomena are never only about the segregation of women; this is a fight for territory and control, just like any attempt to oppress or act violently towards women.”
“This tour demonstrates how dangerous it is to allow extremist groups to take over the public space. The police and the Municipal Authority have abandoned these parts of the city and left them to the control of extremist groups; they have abandoned the female public,” MK Sliman said.
MK Fadida told the CEO of the Beit Shemesh Municipal Authority, “The signs are the easy part; this can be dealt with using proper enforcement; but it cannot be that a woman comes up and tell me that she can’t walk bareheaded in the public space. The local authority is in charge of maintaining order in the public space, period.”