At a time when women are taking their rightful place at the forefront of Israeli society, something is pushing them back — to the back of the bus, that is. The matter soon will be considered in Israel’s highest court.
Egged, Israel’s government-funded bus company, for more than a decade has run sex-segregated buses known as mehadrin on routes serving mostly haredi, or fervently Orthodox, communities.
Introduced for religious reasons, the buses now move through religious and secular neighborhoods in and between cities. Along many routes the mehadrin buses are the only public transit option. And women, regardless of their religiosity, are expected to board using a separate entrance at the back and to dress modestly.
When women try to take an empty seat toward the front of these buses, they often are threatened — verbally, sometimes physically. Women have been kicked off buses, at night and on highways.
But now some are fighting back.
After being heckled for refusing to forfeit her front seat, Naomi Ragen, an observant Jew and well-known author, joined the Israel Religious Action Center, the Reform movement’s legal and public advocacy arm in Israel, and a small group of women to petition Israel’s Supreme Court about bus segregation. They have the National Council of Jewish Women’s support and solidarity.
To American ears, bus segregation is the very symbol of civil rights denied. It recalls the historic moment when the civil-rights movement gained the momentum it needed to bring an end to Jim Crow laws.
To Jewish ears, segregation is fraught with memories of an American past in which segregation extended beyond where we could sit to where we could work, study and live.
The back of the bus carries a symbolism beyond its physicality. It’s where a society sends its second-class citizens. It silently screams "inequality," shouts "inferior." It squelches dignity.
As a young nation balancing its identities as a democracy and a Jewish state, Israel has unique considerations and responsibilities. But make no mistake, women’s presence in public places is not an attack on anyone’s religious freedom.
Buses are part and parcel of daily life for most Israelis. Those who prefer a more insular existence cannot expect the government to subsidize their religious lifestyle by compromising the most basic rights of other citizens.
In any country, when we start banishing women from public spaces, we begin a descent down a dangerous slope. In Israel we already have seen the ripple effect, with men on non-mehadrin buses demanding — sometimes violently — that women move to the back of the bus.
Yet we also know that when women’s rights prevail, they can create a ripple effect. Consider, for example, the ascendance in September of Justice Dorit Beinisch, the first woman to serve as president of Israel’s Supreme Court, which will be considering the bus petition.
Developments like Beinisch’s appointment are inspirational. As women follow in her footsteps as equals and leaders in their own right, we need to make sure they’re not being pushed back — in North America, the Middle East or anywhere else.
The time has come for Israel’s largest national bus company and the Transportation Ministry to stop violating the rights of women.
Israel’s Supreme Court will consider the matter in the coming weeks. In the meantime, we can support Israeli women by standing up for their right to sit down wherever they please.
Phyllis Snyder is president of the National Council of Jewish Women, www.ncjw.org.