By Nili Philipp
Since our family moved from Shoham thirteen years ago, we've seen Beit Shemesh transform from a quiet, pastoral and diverse city, to a city associated with volatile extremism. Within the first few months of our move, I had a hint of what was ahead. I had swung through Ramat Beit Shemesh Bet (RBS-B), a brand new haredineighborhood, to run some quick errands. RBS-B is conveniently located close to home and boasts a vibrant commercial district with adjacent parking and the area's only cash machine. After my errands, I offered two haredi women a ride to Jerusalem and the conversation was pleasant and friendly, until they commented in a quiet, evasive tone “we like our apartments, but the neighborhood's a bit too religious for us.”
These women were unequivocally ultra-orthodox, wearing thick opaque stockings, foam head coverings, and modest robes. They had moved from Jerusalem, not Tel Aviv, and yet Beit Shemesh was too restrictive for them. That's when I understood the fallacy behind comments such as “they like it that way.” In subsequent conversations with other haredi women, that quiet, understated tone has repeated itself with the consistent message --the emphasis on modesty is oppressive and the women are afraid to speak out. At first I thought the fear was exaggerated. I soon learned better.
Over the past several years, women walking the streets in Beit Shemesh have grown accustomed to being spat at and verbally abused. Illegal signs have gone up all over the city telling women how to dress. The municipality has repeatedly ignored our appeals and refuses to remove the signs. To me, these signs say more than the mere words printed on them. They are a symbol that the municipality and police have relinquished jurisdiction in these areas, that here, the rules of democracy don't apply. The signs may as well read “You've now entered Iran.”
In addition, there have been repeated incidents of violent attacks against women and girls by haredi men. Some of these incidents have been made public, but most go unreported. Repeated requests to the municipality for increased police reinforcement and security cameras have been ignored, and as a result, women are afraid to go about their daily business and are inconvenienced because of real threats to their safety. Lest anyone accuse us of provocation, the city's main thoroughfares pass right through these haredi neighborhoods. Often, there is no choice but to drive through the heart of these neighborhoods in order to take our kids to school. When a friend of mine was driving with her young son through RBS-B, she was attacked by rocks and had her rear windshield smashed. The police’s response to her emergency call was to advise her to leave the neighborhood. They would only assist her once she left the area. When I filed a police report after being hit in the head by a rock thrown by aharedi man, the police officer suggested I study martial arts to protect myself against future attacks. I was shocked when several months later the police chief publicly stated that he hadn't received any complaints from women regarding haredi violence. I still have a copy of my report.
Repeatedly, during the entire Orot scandal, and over the last year when two women were viciously attacked by mobs wielding sticks and rocks, both the municipality and the police ignored requests for increased police reinforcement and installation of security cameras. Only when the Orot scandal became a media story that embarrassed City Hall, did the police provide adequate protection. The message from both the police and the municipality is that with respect to haredi harassment and violence, we're on our own. Given that most of the new construction in the city is slated for similar neighborhoods, the future of Beit Shemesh as a city administered according to democratic principles is in doubt.
For this reason, when Orly Erez Lakhovsky from IRAC (the Israel Religious Action Center) approached us about pursuing legal action against the municipality, we agreed. Technically, we are suing the city over failure to remove the illegal and discriminatory signs. But the lawsuit goes much deeper. It is a vocal, public, and communal response that we will no longer tolerate a negligent attitude regarding our personal safety and well-being. The message is doubly powerful as municipal elections will be held in the fall of 2013, and the suit will be tried throughout the election campaign, forcing it onto the political agenda. It is a precedent-setting case which will have ramifications throughout the country
The women of Beit Shemesh are looking for more partners in this endeavor. If you want to be part of women making history in Beit Shemesh, contact Nili Philipp at firstname.lastname@example.org