Five women who initiated a court case against ultra-Orthodox signs in Beit Shemesh that called for women to dress modestly and not walk on some parts of the streets are now facing threats and harassment after the signs began coming down last week.
On December 4, Israel’s Supreme Court ordered the Beit Shemesh municipality to remove signs that demand women dress modestly. The court ruled the signs, which the justices say exclude women from the public sphere, must come down by December 18, and the municipality began removing them last week.
But the five women who initiated the court case are now receiving harassing phone calls after their personal details were published on flyers and posted around Beit Shemesh.
“It was exhilarating to see that this very long arduous process finally come to an end,” said Nili Philipp, an 18-year resident of Beit Shemesh and one of the defendants named in the court case, who is now receiving harassing phone calls.
Over the past decade, Beit Shemesh has experienced frequent tension between ultra-Orthodox, national religious, and secular residents over a range of issues in the public sphere, from signs requesting women dress modestly to gender-segregated seating on public buses to fights over schools and real estate and a highly publicized incident in 2011, where ultra-Orthodox men spat at an 8-year-old girl they claim dressed “immodestly.”
So-called “modesty signs” are sometimes posted near synagogues or yeshivas, in areas which are heavily frequented by ultra-Orthodox men, instructing women to dress appropriately or not to walk on a certain side of the street close to the entrance of the yeshiva.
Beit Shemesh was first ordered to remove the signs in 2015, when the High Court said that they “cause serious harm to human dignity, equality, personal choice and autonomy.” The city claimed the signs demanding conformity to ultra-Orthodox dress are just “ideological signs” and did not comply, which is why Philipp and the other defendants continued with the court case.
Last week, the city removed six of the eight “modesty signs” amid heavy police presence. Violent protests broke out during the removals.
In the interim, protesters have re-posted new signs or sprayed graffiti with the same message in dozens of places, forcing the municipality to work overtime to try to stay on top of the signs in a game of “cat and mouse,” said Mati Rozentzvaig, the spokesman for the Beit Shemesh municipality.
He said the municipality has spent more than NIS 50,000 ($14,000) dealing with the sign removal and graffiti.
On Friday morning, days after the first signs came down, Philipp and other women saw a flyer that had been posted in some areas of Beit Shemesh, instructing people to call the “Reform Women” of the court case and “complain to them to stop bothering the Haredim and God-fearing people from living in holiness and purity.” The flyer included their personal information, including phone numbers, addresses, and identity card numbers.
Philipp said she had received at least four phone calls from different people harassing her, including one from someone who had also tracked down her 23-year-old daughter and called her as well. That same person threatened her with a “pulsa dinora,” a Jewish death curse that literally translates as “lashes of fire.”
The Pulsa Dinura ritual has a shadowy past in Jewish mysticism and Israeli politics. A group of right-wing extremists performed the ritual against prime minister Yitzhak Rabin barely a month before he was assassinated, and another group claimed to have done the same six months before Prime Minister Ariel Sharon’s collapse in 2006.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said police were looking into the threats.
Philipp said she is not sure who is behind the messages and calls to intimidate the women. “It’s unnerving, and it’s worrying that maybe someone will do something to me physically,” she said. “But they can eat chulent as far as I’m concerned.”
“Really at this point I’m ready to sue the person for harassment and intimidation and breach of privacy — I’m furious,” Philipp added.
But, she said, rather than yell at the people on the other end of the phone, she has taken to inviting them over for coffee to talk about their differences, an offer thus far none of the harassers has decided to accept.
“I’ve extended an olive branch, if they can’t speak to me face-to-face, then what are we talking about here? There’s no coexistence,” she said.
Philipp, a native of Canada who has been in Israel for more than 25 years, said the five-year court case taught her about the power of community organizing. “We’re a diverse group, religious, secular, and even some Haredi women who support us, on the side, quietly,” she said. “This has been a real grassroots effort and we’ve accomplished something tremendous.”
Philipp said when women in Beit Shemesh first started talking about what to do about the signs, they didn’t even know if the signs were illegal. But the research and community organizing that brought them to pursue the issue through the courts also sparked a discussion about free speech and personal rights in the public sphere.
“If you feel awkward and violated by [these signs], that’s because it’s a violation and you’re entitled and right to feel violated,” said Philips.
But Rozentzvaig said the court case has drawn unwelcome attention to Beit Shemesh and made it difficult for the city of 100,000 residents to attract national religious and secular residents to the new neighborhood of Neve Shamir, which was built for non-haredi families.
“We think they’re trying to paint Beit Shemesh as a problematic place, that they have an opportunity to get one over the Haredim here,” he said.
“Residents are asking, why just here in Beit Shemesh are they punishing us for something that they aren’t addressing anywhere else in the country?”
Rozentzvaig blamed “outside forces from the Reform movement, who don’t even know where Beit Shemesh is on the map,” for turning “an internal conflict into a war.”
The Israel Reform Action Center represented the women in court.
Rozentzvaig said that while most of the city wanted to live in peace, a few extremists who do not care about getting arrested decided maintaining the signs would be their symbol and are engaging in a type of “holy war.”
He said the mayor’s office feels the court case actually worsened discrimination against women in Beit Shemesh by drawing so much attention to the issue of the signs. He said Mayor Moshe Abutbol would have preferred to solve the issue through dialogue and looked for ways to “politely word the modesty signs,” along the lines of signs at the entrances to religious towns asking visitors to “please not drive here on the Sabbath.”
But Philipp disagrees with that assessment, noting that her attempts at dialogue over the past few days have been fruitless.
“I learned you have to stop it at the littlest things, like when they ask you to sit in another seat on the bus or use a separate entrance for women,” she said.
“There’s no point to give up a fraction of a millimeter of our dignity and self-respect. It just doesn’t end. If you give them an inch, they will take a mile. The sooner you stand up to them, the better.”
“My daughter has grown up with this reality — she passed by three large signs on way to school every day,” said Philip.
Watching the signs come down over the past week, for Philipp, was “an exhilarating thrill, but also painful,” she said. “You internalize the messages that these signs send you. The girls growing up in this city, they’re taught that it’s legitimate and okay that others can tell them what to wear and where to walk. It’s a sigh of relief the signs are coming down, but at the same time it’s taken much, much too long.”