In defense of separate but equal

JERUSALEM (JTA) — Jewish men wearing black hats are sitting in the front of some buses in Israel. The women’s section is in the back. Segregation? Nope. It’s empowerment of women. Egged recently added buses that travel between fervently Orthodox neighborhoods and accommodate that community’s preferences for separate seating. Some women who boarded these buses were rudely treated and, led by novelist Naomi Ragen, filed a petition with Israel’s High Court of Justice objecting to this service. Miriam Shear, who objected to sitting in the back of an Israeli bus — not one of the special buses, incidentally — has been compared to Rosa Parks, a black woman who symbolized the U.S. civil rights movement by refusing to sit in the back of a bus.A better analogy, however, is between Parks, who stood for empowerment of blacks, and religious women who view the right to sit separately, even if it’s in the back of the bus, as empowerment. The fervently Orthodox community has observed the degradation of Israel’s public square in recent decades and wondered, how low can you go? Forced to listen to raunchy music, gaze at indecent ads and observe bare midriffs, religious women and men arranged their own private buses. These rival buses attracted so many customers that Egged tried to put them out of business by offering similar conditions on certain routes. Egged wants to make money and doesn’t want to lose haredi customers, so it added a few extra “mehadrin” lines — optional and stringent — to provide separate seating for those who didn’t want men to have to mix with scantily clad women. This entrepreneurship is as American as apple pie. Egged’s mehadrin lines became extremely popular. But the glitches will take time to resolve. Fervently Orthodox women feel empowered by the separate seating. While many people decry provocative dress and sensual ads, few do anything about it. By arranging separate seating on extra buses, the fervently Orthodox have created new options. This is multiculturalism and pluralism. The vast majority of Israeli buses continue to have mixed seating. Why women in the back? It isn’t strictly required, but in the Shema prayer we are warned not to follow our roving eyes, and some Orthodox men take an extra stringency upon themselves to minimize such opportunities.The advertising industry did not need the Shema to know that men are more easily stirred by visual stimulation than women. By analogy, if your spouse is on a diet, you wouldn’t intentionally tempt your spouse, saying, “That’s your problem, control yourself.” While self-control is an admirable quality, you shouldn’t put stumbling blocks before the blind… or the sighted.Women who chose to ride in the rear of the bus see themselves as partners in, and beneficiaries of, the attempt to encourage family integrity by creating temptation-free comfort zones. I’m not implying that mixed seating on buses leads to busses, but this gift from God — that women nicely distract men — belongs in the privacy of the home. Men are hard-wired differently than women. It’s the men who are disadvantaged because Jewish law imposes more limits on their visual freedom.But this multicultural approach of providing a variety of different services has a downside: A tiny percentage of passengers have had unpleasant experiences. I apologize to Ragen, the other petitioners and anyone else who was treated rudely. The Orthodox need to do much introspection to minimize the offense to those who prefer mixed seating. Rabbis in the fervently Orthodox press have rebuked their community for bus boorishness. Unfortunately, there is much road rage and hurtful behavior in all sectors of Israeli society that has nothing to do with religious issues. As Amos Oz wrote, “Israel belongs in a Fellini movie, not an Ingmar Bergman film” — meaning that Israelis tend to hyperactivity. Egged, which didn’t want to lose an economic opportunity, did a half-hearted job and didn’t mark the mehadrin buses so people would be aware they were boarding a separate-seating bus. It was left to the passengers to sort things out for themselves — a formula for chaos and conflict, as illustrated by a few incidents where women who didn’t move to the back were insulted and, in one rare case, assaulted. That led to the High Court petition for a temporary injunction on separate seating. The petitioners are asking Egged to regularize mehadrin lines, mark buses clearly, formalize rules for deportment and limit the number of special buses. Perhaps something good will come from the initiative of the petitioners: Egged will fish or cut bait. All sides — the women who feel empowered by separate seating, those who petitioned the court to regularize the arrangement, Egged and the media, which is having a heyday — should be applauded for encouraging a public airing of this fascinating conundrum. (Shira Leibowitz Schmidt, a graduate of the Stanford University engineering school and the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, is co-author of a book on science and Jewish tradition. She is a journalist and translator in Netanya.)

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