Outraged gender equality advocates in Beit Shemesh have raised charges of hypocrisy over images of a local ultra-Orthodox politician lounging near scantily clad women in Eilat that are being circulated on social networks.
The photos of Moshe Montag – a city councilor from the Degel Hatorah Party and a senior member of the administration of Mayor Moshe Abutbul (Shas) – were posted on Facebook Tuesday night and immediately generated an uproar among opponents of the municipality’s tolerance of signs demanding modest dress hung by religious extremists around the town.
Mixed gender swimming is forbidden by the ultra-Orthodox.
“I’m not surprised,” said activist Nili Philip. “We’ve known all along that this has nothing to do with real modesty or Judaism and it’s all been about corrupt power and control and capitulating to extremist elements in the name of politics.”
“I’m not criticizing him for going to the pool. Just the opposite, I fully respect his right to live his life as he chooses and dress as he wants where he wants. I am not judging him on his dress. I only ask he return that tolerance to the women of Bet Shemesh.”
In January she and several other women won a lawsuit against the municipality for its failure to remove prominent signs put up in central locations in the city warning women to dress modestly and not to linger in certain places.
According to the court’s ruling “the municipality and the mayor chose not to take any steps to enforce the authority and obligations incumbent upon them to remove the signs… they absolved themselves from this obligation.”
The municipality countered by stating that it had repeatedly taken the signs down but that they were replaced on each occasion, adding that taking the signs down had led to riots.
Asked about the photos, Montag’s office manager, Benzion Rockov, said that he did not understand what the point was of even discussing the topic.
“Are you serious” he queried. “Do you really think that you can use pictures of a private individual to defame a person? These are pictures that also the media in Bet Shemesh understands that they can’t use. Only you think that you are smarter than everyone. Do what you think, on your responsibility, and don’t say you didn’t know.”
The use of religion in Beit Shemesh politics also played a role in stoking anger over the images, with local residents taking to Facebook to vent their feelings. One complained about what he saw as the “obsessive nature of the modesty regime in the city, backed by rabbis” as well as “the sanctimonious election campaign which [Montag] headed with the mayor.”
During the 2013 mayoral race, the ultra-Orthodox community distributed campaign advertisements claiming that “evildoers” seeking to “uproot the Torah” were intent on taking over the city” and stating that voting for the ultra-Orthodox incumbents would be a “sanctification of God’s name.”
According to Rabbi Dov Lipman, a former Yesh Atid MK who has been active in combating religious extremism in Bet Shemesh, the problem is not related in any way to Montag’s choice of swim partners.
“How dare he act as part of the political establishment in Beit Shemesh – which has worked to prevent the construction of an outdoor pool in the city, a culture hall in the city, a movie theater in the city, and more – all in the name of ‘representing the will of great Torah scholars.’ “My issue is with the hypocrisy, not with his own personal lifestyle and I have seen that hypocrisy throughout the haredi political establishment,” Lipman told The Jerusalem Post. “I believe that the private activities of a public figure which go against the policies and lifestyle which he forces on the citizens he leads is very relevant and is important for the public to know.”
Weighing in on the issue, Rabbi Uri Regev of the Hiddush religious equality NGO, commented that the “sages of old observed that it’s not the truly faithful that pose a threat, but the hypocrites.
“Montag, who is part of a fundamentalist leadership circle in the anti-women war zones of Beit Shemesh, may have shown his true colors in the permissive environs of Eilat. It’s high time that greater openness towards human nature be practiced in Beit Shemesh, rather than women being denied their rightful, equal positions in the public sphere.”
However, not everyone believed that the issue was worthy of public attention, with city opposition councilman Moshe Sheetrit (Likud) stating that he did not think that “it’s any business of mine what a council member does in his own time.”
The issue received no coverage in the ultra-Orthodox media, aside from one tweet by journalist Israel Cohen of the Kikar Hashabbat news website.
He later deleted the tweet with an apology.