Gender segregation on Israeli Buses

by Maskil on 28 Jul 2009

The issue of gender segregation on certain Israeli bus lines (branching out from the so-called Mehadrin lines) will seemingly not go away, with both observant and non-observant women being forced to sit at the back of buses, or face harassment or assault by ultra-Orthodox thugs.

I’ve quoted below the text of a letter to the editor of the SA Jewish Report I sent on 25 March 2007, i.e. before I began blogging seriously. Sad to say, in the two plus years that have passed since then, the situation regarding segregated buses appears to have become worse rather than better.

My initial reaction was along the lines of “yes, they have the right to segregate themselves, provided they don’t infringe the rights of others (which they do, by the way, flagrantly). On reflection, however, I would go even further and say that the state has a duty to not only protect others from their customs, but also to protect them from their own customs, where this is in conflict with the public good and the values of society as a whole. In this case, bus passengers need and deserve the protection of the state from the customs and mores of others, and perhaps even from their own.

It is also not correct to argue that because private bus companies are involved, they can offer these segregated services. They have undermined their case by failing to protect their commuters from harassment, failing to identify segregated lines as such, and failing to offer alternatives. At another level, they are offering a public service in the public space, even if the state has chosen to outsource this to the private sector. As an enterprise operating in the public space, they should not be permitted to offer this kind of segregated or discriminatory service, even if the segregation was supposedly intended to be on a voluntary basis.

The state has a duty to protect the society it represents from the words and deeds of those whose values are in conflict with those of society at large.

The ultra-Orthodox right to segregate themselves along gender lines should be limited to their own homes and their own institutions (but only provided that those institutions are not funded wholly or partially by the taxpayer or unwitting donor).

Separate but equal again?

I refer to the JTA article “In defence of separate but equal” in the 16 March 2007 issue of the SA Jewish Report.

The author has attempted to make the case that harassment and assault of non-conforming passengers has only taken place on “Mehadrin” lines. Most other reports, however, have indicated that these incidents occurred on lines not marked as Mehadrin, or where no alternate lines have been provided.

She also attempts to gloss over the issue by stating that “A tiny percentage of passengers have had unpleasant experiences”. Once again, reports from other sources indicate that harassment has been widespread and assaults common (not simply “in one rare case, assaulted”). The worldwide negative publicity and High Court petition did not arise from a “tiny percentage”, an “unpleasant experience”, being “treated rudely”, “hurtful behaviour” or “one rare case” of assault.

There is also a reference to “Rabbis in the fervently Orthodox press” rebuking “their community for bus boorishness”. I’m guessing that those affected would prefer the protection of the law to which they’re entitled, rather than relying on entreaties from traditional leaders. Pointing out that “there is much road rage and hurtful behaviour in all sectors of Israeli society” does not excuse this orchestrated campaign to impose their preferences on others.

Empowerment of women? Yes, probably in the same way that wearing the Hijab is empowering for Muslim women. Those responsible are free to feel themselves “empowered” by their customs, but any attempt to impose these customs on other bus commuters must be firmly resisted.

Lastly, I’m not sure I understand what issues concerned with reciting the Sh’ma and wondering eyes have to do with bus lines. As pointed out by one commentator in the Jerusalem Post, “A bus is not a synagogue”.

(The reference to “separate but equal” has echoes of the Apartheid system in South Africa, where that exact phrase was part of the standard defence of what was at one stage officially known as the policy of “separate development”.)

Mainstream Zionism created a revolution in Jewish life and thought that manifested itself in Israeli society. Unfortunately, however, that revolution was never given substance in a constitution for Israel. Those hard-won gains are now seriously in danger of being washed away by the black tide sweeping through Judaism everywhere, but most significantly in Israel.

Let’s hope that the progressive forces in Israeli society can manage to salvage something of these democratic and pluralistic values and institutions for Israel, the Jewish people and generations to come.

The rest of us should be speaking out against these anti-modern and anti-democratic trends through whatever channels are available to us (particularly financial), while ensuring that we embrace only the modern, sustainable and egalitarian trends within Judaism, not those that would lead us back into the Ghetto and the Shtetl, out of fear of the modern world.

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