Just ignore the signs, the women of Beit Shemesh were told - over and over again.
But the illegal warnings that loomed monstrously, on the telephone poles and walls of numerous commercial districts, were impossible to ignore. They demanded arbitrary modesty standards: neckline, sleeve and skirt length, explicit prohibition of pants or 'tight' clothing, all in the official name of the local rabbis. Having your body examined with a magnifying glass in public is, of course, anything but modest. Other signs decreed that even our very presence was a breach of modesty, “requesting” that women refrain from passing or lingering on certain sidewalks. The signs ARE a public form of sexual harassment and discrimination.
Last week, Beit Shemesh women scored a clear victory against a municipality that has a notorious record for violating the rights of women and girls. Justice David Gideoni’s ruling offered a glimmer of hope when he awarded us, four women plaintiffs who refused to ignore these signs, a total of NIS 60,000 ($16,000). The money was compensation for the insult and anguish caused by the Municipality's failure to remove six of these 'modesty' signs which send a harassing and threatening message to women. We were ably represented in our lawsuit by our lawyer Orly Erez Likhovski from the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC).
We took this action after we understood that the modesty signs had created the atmosphere that was triggering incidents of more blatant sexual harassment such as spitting and name-calling ('whore' and 'slut') and had escalated to a threatening pattern that included outright physical assault. The four of us had all experienced numerous incidents of harassment and assault over the years, along with our daughters and friends. Our need to take action reached its tipping point in June 2012 after a woman named Vered Daniel, while holding her infant daughter, was assaulted by a mob of stick-wielding haredi men because they deemed her to be dressed immodestly. Her attack occurred just meters from one of the signs listed in our lawsuit.
Although the city made an initial half-hearted attempt to remove two signs, they were immediately replaced, and have remained there ever since.
It’s hard to say what aspect of the behavior of the municipality led by Mayor Moshe Abutbul was more insulting: the fact that our repeated pleas for their removal were completely ignored, even after we submitted a letter drafted by our lawyer - or that, once sued, the lame arguments that were presented to defend their actions. The city said the signs shouldn't be removed since more signs will only appear in their stead, and that it would be impossible to physically contain the mass rioting that would ensue upon removing the signs? (This, from a group of ultra-Orthodox who never spent a day in army basic training, and aren’t exactly known for their athletic prowess.) This claim was an insult to our - and to the court’s - intelligence.
But I think the greatest insult of all was the argument made by the city's lawyer and spokesperson that the cost to city property was too great to risk. They repeatedly recalled an incident that happened years ago when some local rioters set fire to a municipal vehicle as city workers were removing a sign. Weighing the safety and fundamental rights of women against the cost of a used truck - and deeming the truck more valuable - pretty much tops it all.
In the wake of our victory, some have criticized us as wasting precious public money to compensate for a personal insult. I could argue 60,000 NIS IS a pittance vs the millions wasted by our municipality, that each of us plaintiffs are deeply involved in various local non-profit projects, and all the money will surely then be put to good public use.
But my preserved answer to these critics is the following: discrimination and violation of fundamental civic rights places a heavy cost on society, and a city government that tolerates such violations needs to pay. The money that the Beit Shemesh municipality has been ordered to pay is but a drop in the ocean of the true price of its behavior.
Many well-wishers called me on Sunday after our court victory was made public, but any sense of celebration and relief at the fact that justice was served, is laced with sadness. This case should never have gone to court.
Our case was about far more than merely the city's failure to enforce administrative laws outlawing these signs. Mayor Abutbul failed on a much deeper and more fundamental side of common human decency, of protecting the weak from violent threats and harassment, of forsaking the basic rights of women and girls in this city. This was a completely unforgivable crime.
And no amount of money, not 60,000 shekels - or 60,000,000 shekels - can truly compensate for it.