Segregating Israel’s Bus System? Behind the Headlines

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The past few weeks have seen a sudden increase in secular-Orthodox tensions in Israel, focusing on accusations of discrimination, exclusion and segregation of women. While some of the accusations have merit, such as an incident of an Orthodox Jewish man spitting on a young girl for being “immodestly dressed” in Ramat Beit Shemesh, much of the phenomenon of separation of the sexes in the certain areas of the Orthodox community has been going on for years. What set off the latest problem was the Israeli media’s typical outlandish comparisons between some minor event here and some important historical figure abroad.

This time it isn’t Joe McCarthy, but Rosa Parks. Foreign news outlets have picked up the story, running headlines like “Israel’s Rosa Parks refuses to take back seat.” It’s important to look behind the headlines to see what all the fuss is about. On Dec. 18, an Israeli woman boarded a bus from the part city of Ashdod going to Jerusalem. There are several Egged bus lines that go from Ashdod, and one of them caters almost exclusively to Orthodox Jews to commute to Mea Shearim, a religious neighborhood in Jerusalem. On several dozen (some say 55 exactly) of these types of bus lines, about 90 percent of whose riders are ultra-Orthodox, there is self-segregation between the sexes: men sit in front, women in back. 

It seems this secular woman boarded the bus with the intention to cause a news incident. According to CNN, “she was the first passenger that morning on the bus and took a seat behind the driver [in the men’s area].” She told reporters, “This is my home town of Ashdod, I live in an Israeli democracy, people cannot tell me where to sit on a bus.” One wonders, if it was typical for men to sit in the back of the bus, wouldn’t this woman have purposely gotten on first and sat in the back just to make a point? 

Unlike the story with the real Rosa Parks, there can’t be a boycott of the buses by the female community because almost all the women who ride the segregated bus lines are Haredi (Orthodox) women who, it seems, don’t have a problem with the segregation. Secular women can boycott the bus lines, but since secular women don’t use these buses—and specifically the kinds of secular women who gravitate toward activism on this issue have cars—there isn’t really much economic pressure that can be applied. However, the public is being encouraged by some commentators to lead a struggle on all the bus lines, to end the “discrimination.” In the end, the Haredim will win because they are more stubborn. The Israeli Supreme Court, the police and all the antics of the activist public are not going to change the Haredi way of life. 

The idea of people being “in the back” of the bus conjures up notions of how the segregated buses in the American South operated. “In the back” seems to imply “worse” or “second class.”  The Jewish public has historically fought against this type of segregation. However, it is important to understand that what underpins this segregation by the Orthodox public is not a desire to discriminate against women, but rather to separate the sexes so that, in their eyes, immorality will not result. This segregation of the sexes is drawn directly from the segregation that takes place in Orthodox synagogues.  Given this fact the Orthodox public might consider several innovative solutions that would make the system less controversial. For one thing they could have men sit in the back. One problem with this is that the men argue that sitting in the back would cause them to look forward at women, leading them “astray.” 

Could they have seats that face backward? Could they have separate entrances at the rear and front of the bus and a divider in the middle of the bus? Could they have separate buses for men and women? What about double decker buses with one level for women and another for men?  These solutions seem silly, but in some cases the secular outrage at the Orthodox is equally silly.  In secular society there is sex segregation in sports and in restrooms, in college dorms and in some private schools. So why does the secular public have such outrage at the Orthodox who are merely practicing a different type of sex segregation? No one considers separate bathrooms for men and women discriminatory. The logic behind having the different bathrooms is partly historical, and partly due to the fact that men and women don’t feel comfortable being in the same bathroom together. The Orthodox community has a similar discomfort about being jammed together on a bus. 

One issue with the bus lines is that they are public and state funded. A solution therefore might be to privatize the bus lines, as the Jerusalem Institute for Market Studies, a free market think tank, has suggested. However, for now it is important to realize that comparing the situation in Israel to the American South is neither reasonable nor helpful. The best solution is to try to understand it from the Orthodox community’s perspective and find an innovative solution.

Seth J. Frantzman is a writer, journalist and scholar residing in Jerusalem.

Posted on January 2, 2012 and filed under Israel, Opinion.