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Women in Israel: to the Back of the Bus?

Orly Erez-Likhosvki, IRAC


Prof. Tamar El-Or, antropologe aan de Hebrew University, houdt zich o.a. bezig met ‘gender’-kwesties, heeft onderzoek gedaan binnen de ultra-orthodoxie in Israël. Haar website bevat een aantal downloadbare artikelen.
IRAC, Israel Religious Action Centre, (the public and legal advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel)

A few years ago, a 76 year old woman named Judith boarded a public bus in central Israel on her way to Jerusalem. She chose to sit right behind the driver. At the time, she had a cast on her leg. After a while, the driver turned to Judith and demanded she move to the back of the bus, because women should not sit at the front row. Judith tried to explain to the driver that it would be difficult for her, but the driver insisted she should sit in the back, with the rest of the women. Judith asked to get off the bus, but the driver didn't let her. Finally, feeling she had no choice, she moved to the back of the bus, feeling humiliated and angry.

This story was not uncommon until last year. How can this have happened in Israel and what brought about a change? This is what I am going to talk about.

The demand of the driver that Judith move to the back of the bus is part of a new trend of radicalization in the ultra-orthodox community in Israel.

In the last decade, as a reaction to the growing secularization of the Israeli society, and the perceived threat this secularization poses to their way of life, the Ultra-Orthodox community, which numbers about 8% of the population, has been trying to enforce stricter modesty norms in the public sphere.

These norms have to do with the way women should be dressed, as well as issues such as prohibitions on the use of the internet, smartphones or the TV.

In this context, there is a growing tendency by some ultra-orthodox leaders to create separation between men and women in a variety of areas. The demand was first raised in the context of public transportation, but it then spread to many other areas as well (medical clinics, private businesses, municipal events and even physical segregation on streets).

It is important to stress that these demands are voiced by radical leaders and radical groups within the larger ultra-orthodox community and many ultra-orthodox men and women oppose these demands. However, many of the ultra-orthodox opponents of the new rules of segregation cannot publically oppose them because they fear that they will be tagged as not religious enough. Instead, those brave men and women turn to us at IRAC and ask that we keep fighting against those practices, which they – like us – do not believe are dictated by Jewish Law.

Let me now focus on the specific issue of segregation in public buses, and later on I will mention a few more examples of segregation.

During the last decade the Ultra Orthodox population, which formerly concentrated in a few big cities in central Israel, has begun to move to new areas - in the center but also in northern and southern parts of the country.

The Ultra Orthodox population is generally poor – many of them do not work and instead study in Talmudic academies. Most of them therefore do not own cars and rely heavily on public transportation.

In 1997, the main public bus company decided to start operating segregated but lines, in an attempt to prevent competition from private bus companies serving Ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. It asked the Ministry of Transportation to allow the operation of public bus lines in which there would be separation between men and women – called Mehadrin Buses (meaning "especially strict" buses). The Ministry of Transportation agreed to operate 2 segregated bus lines which were supposed to run for a trial period in Jerusalem and in an Ultra Orthodox suburb of Tel Aviv called Bney Brak.

The trial period later became a permanent reality. Since 1997, more segregated lines were added so that ultimately there were around 50 segregated public bus lines (out of many thousands of bus lines) all across Israel connecting various Ultra Orthodox communities. These lines served not only Ultra Orthodox passengers but also many orthodox and secular passengers who opposed segregation.

The segregated lines were not marked in any special way, and the rules of behavior were not published anywhere. The rules were set by Ultra Orthodox Rabbis and were presented by the bus companies as the rules one should follow when taking those buses, since those lines were meant to serve mainly Ultra Orthodox passengers. These were the rules of conduct:

  1. Men boarded the bus from the front door and sat at the front, and women boarded the bus from the back door and sat in the back of the bus. This was the case even if there was plenty of room at the front of the bus and the back was very crowded with women and kids in strollers. Why were women sent to the back of the bus and not vice versa? The reason given was that men should not have the ability to look at women, to avoid impure thoughts.
  2. Women were supposed to dress modestly (shorts with long sleeves, skirts).
  3. Usually, there was no alternative to the segregated bus line, so in order to avoid the segregated line, one had to take two or three buses instead.
  4. The segregated lines were usually less expensive.
  5. Women who boarded these buses but did not behave according to the unwritten rules were sometimes subject to hostile reactions – verbal abuse and in rare instances even physical assaults. Usually in these cases the Ultra Orthodox passengers began scolding the woman, and when she turned to the driver, he usually replied that she should be considerate of the Ultra Orthodox population and obey the rules.

The clash between the Ultra Orthodox minority and the secular Israeli majority that was raised by the appearance of segregated bus lines in Israel is not unique to Israeli society. Many Western societies face a similar question: when to allow, in the name of multicultural tolerance, practices of religious minorities which offend the sensibilities and sometimes even the basic values of the majority – be it school girls who come to school wearing a veil in France or the issue of kosher slaughter here in the Netherlands. This is a complicated question and it is often difficult to determine where to draw the line between an acceptable practice and an illegal one.

In the specific context of gender segregation on public buses in Israel the dilemma is that, on the one hand, forcing women to sit at the back of the bus contradicts basic values which are enshrined in Israeli constitutional law – the values of equality (because separate cannot be equal) and human dignity (because of the humiliation associated with sending women to the back of the bus or telling them what to wear).

On the other hand, it can be argued that a multicultural society such as Israel should allow religious and other minorities to live their lives according to their beliefs. Many Ultra Orthodox men and women really do feel extremely uncomfortable taking a crowded bus where men and women sit together. The Ultra Orthodox minority has a right to maintain their culture and traditions, which emphasizes modesty. Since many people in the Ultra Orthodox community do not own a car and rely heavily on public transportation, the question is whether the state is not obliged to offer them bus services which will suit their beliefs and way of life?

An additional complication here is that it is impossible to view the Ultra Orthodox as a single monolithic group which unanimously supports segregation. The multiculturalist argument ignores the gender hierarchy within the Ultra Orthodox minority. One must not forget that Ultra Orthodox women constitute a weak minority within the Ultra Orthodox minority. If Ultra Orthodox women's status is inferior to Ultra Orthodox men's, a practice which treats women as inferior should not be respected by the state as an authentic minority practice. In this respect, it should be noted that:

• The rules of gender segregation were created by men, are enforced by men and serve the interests of Ultra Orthodox men.

• Since decision makers in the Ultra Orthodox sector are exclusively men, no one asked the opinion of Ultra Orthodox women regarding segregated bus lines, and they cannot change this rule.

• It should be emphasized that the fact that women sit at the back of the bus is not accidental: Sending women to the back of the bus sends a message about the inferiority of women and about the exclusion of women from the center, from public life, to the corner, where they can have no public affect.

• It should also be pointed out that the value of modesty itself is not gender neutral: it forces women to partially disappear from public view in order to protect men from women’s sexuality. Men created modesty rules which force restrictions on women in order to protect men from having impure thoughts about women.

One final complication: Can I, for example, as a non Orthodox woman, speak at all on behalf of Ultra Orthodox women? How can we discover their real attitude toward segregation? And if some Ultra Orthodox women declare they are in favor of segregation, do they really have a choice? Apparently, if those women will disagree to segregation they could be subject to severe sanctions. So should we say that even Ultra Orthodox women who favor this practice do not really know what they are talking about because they are part of a patriarchal society, whose values are alien to values of equality and human dignity? And if we say so, wouldn’t that be paternalistic of us?

With these thoughts in mind let’s move to the legal struggle that we at IRAC have been leading and to the decision of the Israeli Supreme Court in this case.

On January 2007 we submitted a petition to the Israeli Supreme Court, on behalf of IRAC and 5 women, some of whom where Orthodox, who took these segregated bus lines and were hurt and humiliated.

We had many deliberations regarding the proper solution of the dilemma that the lines posed. Ultimately , our petition to the Supreme Court did not ask the Court to totally abolish the segregated lines. Instead, we asked that there will be an alternative, non-segregated bus line, to each segregated line, making sure every person boarding the bus would have a choice between taking a segregated and a non-segregated bus.

The case was first argued before the Court in 2008. Following the arguments, the Supreme Court recommended that a Committee would be formed to discuss the issue.

The Israeli Ministry of Transportation then formed a committee, and the report of the committee was submitted on 2009. Much to our surprise, it went much further than what we had asked for in our petition. The report stated unequivocally that forced segregation between men and women on public bus lines is illegal, since it is discriminatory and humiliating towards women.

Following the report, the Supreme Court gave its final decision in the case in 2011. This decision adopted the report of the Ministry Of Transportation Committee and it too declared that forced segregation between men and women on public bus lines is illegal. The court decided that when balancing the rights of the Ultra Orthodox to freedom of religion and the rights of women to equality, dignity and freedom from religion – women's rights should prevail. Therefore, there should not be any restrictions on the ability of women to board the bus from the front door and sit at the front.

The Court ordered that:
• The public bus companies will publish ads in Ultra Orthodox
newspapers stating that segregation in public buses has been abolished.

• That a sign will be posted on each bus, stating that each passenger
can seat wherever he or she wants.

• That the drivers on these buses will be instructed to protect the
rights of women to sit wherever they wish.

This was an important decision since it was the first time the court declared gender segregation illegal and of course it has implications on demands for segregation in other contexts as well.

Following the Court's decision in 2011, we at IRAC have been taking steps to make sure that the decision is implemented. We are doing three things in this respect:

1. We monitor bus lines to see whether indeed women were now able to board the bus from the front door and sit at the front. We found out that indeed things have changed – there were fewer incidents of verbal violence toward women who sat at the front. Also, almost always the drivers protect women who are harassed. And so, there is only a slim chance that Judith's story, which I mentioned in the beginning, will reoccur.

2. In those cases were women were still harassed, we helped them file a civil tort suit for damages against the bus company and the driver. Under Israeli Anti Discrimination law, anyone who was discriminated against in a public place, can file a suit without the need to prove his or her damages. Two such suits were already accepted by the court and the bus companies were forced to pay damages to the women in question. This sends a strong message to the bus companies and the drivers about the price they will have to pay for their illegal behavior.

3. Although there were fewer incidents, often the segregated sitting pattern remained as before – Ultra Orthodox women at the back, men at the front. We had to let Ultra Orthodox women know they have a choice. We found out that even one secular woman who sits at the front, gives the courage to Ultra Orthodox women to join her up front, rather than go to the back of the bus. And so, we started "freedom rides", where groups of men and women, Israelis and non-Israelis, board buses and sit upfront. This indeed changes the reality of segregated bus lines.

Burial ceremonies in Israel are religious ceremonies performed by Orthodox Rabbis (civil burial ceremonies funded by the State are only available in few locations around the country). In many cemeteries, there are signs marking the men's section and the women's section at the mourning hall. In some places, the Rabbi performing the ceremony does not allow women to eulogize or to actively participate in the burial ceremony. Here is one example.

Last year, a woman named Rosie lost her father. Before the funeral, she sat down and with great agony, wrote a eulogy in memory of her father. At the funeral, a few family members and friends spoke about Rosie's father and then it was her turn to speak. As she prepared to read what she has written, the Orthodox Rabbi who conducted the ceremony, declared: "Don't pass her the microphone, she cannot speak." When Rosie's brother asked the Rabbi why was he preventing her from speaking the Rabbi replied: "Women do not give eulogies." The rabbi suggested Rosie's brother will read the eulogy, or even the Rabbi himself. Rosie, of course, refused. How could the Rabbi read a eulogy beginning with the words "Dear father"? As the mourners followed the deceased to the grave, the men went at the front and all the women – at the back. The death of Rosie's father was traumatic. His funeral was not less traumatic.

Just as segregation on buses is illegal, so are those demands in the context of funerals.

The case of Rosie and similar cases triggered two developments:

1. We helped Rosie file a suit for damages against the burial company. A few weeks ago, Rosie's case was litigated before a civil court, and the Judge was appalled by the Rabbi's illegal behavior, and we are awaiting his decision.

2. At the end of 2011, Israeli society has reached a tipping point with regard to the issue of segregation. Suddenly, the issue of gender segregation made headlines and opened every news broadcast. A number of women who experienced discrimination became major media figures: A woman who refused to move to the back of a bus, a little girl who Ultra Orthodox men spat on, because she was not dressed modestly enough, and also Rosie. Following the public outcry in the media, the Israeli government decided to form a committee to deal with the issue of exclusion of women from public places, headed by Limor Livnat, the female Minister of Culture. The committee met several times, and discussed different issues and we took active part in the deliberations. In March 2012, the committee issued a report, declaring that the government is determined to fight illegal gender segregation. On the specific issue of funerals, the committee instructed the Minister of Religious Services to publish guidelines which would prohibit exclusion of women. And indeed, when we monitored different cemeteries, we found out things have improved.

Public buses and funerals are not the only arenas in which we find segregation. We also discover it in a public radio station catering for an Ultra Orthodox audience which does not allow women to talk in its programs, in the Israeli army, where Ultra Orthodox soldiers call for restrictions on female soldiers, on billboards on streets in cities with sizeable Ultra Orthodox population, where women are excluded from ads. We are fighting against all those demands, both in court and through public pressure on decision makers.

I began to handle segregation cases back in 2005. The rise in gender segregation gave me almost a full time job in the last two years. However, it seems that a shift has occurred in the last months.

Both the Israeli legal system and Israeli public opinion have started to reverse the segregation trend. The landmark Supreme Court case of 2011 which totally prohibited gender segregation on buses is a very important milestone in this respect. The civil suits which we helped women file will hopefully convey the message that discrimination is not only illegal, it is also uneconomical.

Finally, it should be mentioned that there are two opposing currents in Ultra Orthodox society: One is the radicalization that I spoke about here but there is also an opposite current - a gradual and cautious opening of some sectors of this community to the general secular society: More and more Ultra Orthodox men and women pursue academic studies, get a job, some even join the Israeli army. The numbers are still quite small, but it is a meaningful step toward the opening and liberalization of Ultra Orthodox society.

So, my final message is optimistic. Solving the clash between the liberal majority and the radical minority is not an easy task. But our hard work is starting to pay off. We have made a change and we will keep on doing so, to make Israel a more just, equal and pluralistic place.

© Orly Erez-Likhosvki, Adv.
Israel Religious Action Center, 2012