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Stop the Modesty Police!

Stop the Modesty Police!

Have you ever been in a restaurant and seen a sign reading “No shirt, No shoes, No service”? If you feel that this dress code is strict, imagine living in Beit Shemesh, where women are intimidated while walking on public streets if their clothes do not conform to a strict interpretation of modesty. A group of Orthodox women from Beit Shemesh found this situation intolerable and they came to IRAC for legal help.

Representing several of these women, last week we filed a lawsuit against the city of Beit Shemesh, claiming that city authorities have allowed a small but extreme sect of ultra-Orthodox Jews to act as a “modesty police” against the city’s residents. The suit centers on street signs that were put up in public places telling women they can only enter wearing “proper dress” and a description of the kind of dress that is considered proper. City officials, including the ultra-Orthodox mayor of Beit Shemesh, have so far refused to intervene and act against the radical group behind these signs, thereby giving the signs tacit approval.

It is important to understand that the four women we are representing, and the many other women who have come to us about this issue, are not radical non-conformists. They are modest Orthodox women in every sense. The stories they told us about being afraid to walk down the street for fear of men hurling insults or worse at them was heartbreaking. It is hard to fully express the level of intimidation these women are feeling.

We are suing the city for not taking steps to remove these offensive signs and we are seeking significant damages (25,000 shekels) for emotional distress on behalf of each of the women named in the case. It is our hope that the sting of Israel’s justice system will remind the officials in Beit Shemesh of their responsibilities to protect all residents.

The views of this extreme group represent neither the majority of Israelis, nor the majority of Orthodox Jews, but they hold a disproportionate amount of power because hardly anybody else besides these brave women and IRAC are pushing back or providing help against this kind of religious coercion.

This case accentuates how important it is for Israel to have a government that represents all its citizens. Prime Minster Netanyahu has asked for a two-week extension in forming a government. We need to keep the pressure on him to fill his cabinet with moderates.

Image courtesy of REUTERS/Nir Elias.

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