Op-Ed: Let’s work to end uncouth behavior all around

NEW YORK (JTA) — Last August, dozens of women launched a protest against the practice of separate men’s and women’s seating on some Israeli public bus routes servicing haredi communities. They boarded the buses and sat down among the men, expecting to provoke some strong reaction.

The women, some of whom were dressed in decidedly non-haredi style, expected to be forced to the area where the women passengers were sitting, but passengers largely just ignored them. On one bus, a haredi passenger did ask the driver to tell the protesters to sit among the other women, but the driver refused and the passenger returned to his seat.

Howls of outrage at the “mehadrin” buses have increased of late, intensified by an Israeli High Court decision on a petition by an Israeli Reform group and an assortment of activists to outlaw separate-seating arrangements on any bus. The court declined to do so, reiterating that the seating arrangement on such buses was voluntary.

In a handful of cases over the years, individuals have been accused of harassing women who wished to sit among the men on such buses. Such bullying is not only unlawful but loutish, and has never been condoned by haredi leaders. (Nor, of course, has the Reform/feminist alliance condoned the action in January of a woman on a mehadrin bus in Ashdod who, after a man asked her to sit among the women, assaulted him with pepper spray.  No community, unfortunately, lacks for uncouth members.) The solution to illegal acts, though, is to enforce laws, not to limit the freedom of a company to cater to a subset of its patrons.

Separate-seating buses, which are limited to certain lines, simply accommodate the wishes of some male haredim that they not be distracted by the opposite sex, and some female haredim’s wish to have a dedicated “women’s space.”

At first the petitioners only wanted to ensure that ample mixed-seating buses were available to them, an entirely reasonable request. But then, sensing a larger opportunity, the activists decided to make the legal prohibition of separate-seating buses their cause. In the wake of the court’s recent ruling, the activists have chosen to portray the decision as an affront to human rights and haredim as a malevolent force intent on changing the face of Israeli society rather than a community simply seeking to enhance their chosen way of life.

Unmentioned, moreover, by the activists — and unknown to most American Jews — is that when the first separate-seating buses appeared about a decade ago, they were privately run services by haredim for haredim. Israel’s public bus companies, fearing the loss of a substantial number of riders — Israeli haredim are less likely than other Israelis to own cars — made a business decision to co-opt the service. So portraying the mehadrin buses as Trojan horses in a haredi plot to conquer Israeli society is, to put it mildly, fanciful.

The second front that activists have opened in their war against haredim, tragically, is the Western Wall. In 2003, the Israeli High Court, seeking to preserve the traditional ambience and respect for mainstream Jewish religious law at the Wall plaza while accommodating feminists who wanted to hold vocal prayer services and public Torah readings there, set aside an area of equal proximity, and thus equal holiness, to the site of the Holy Temple courtyard for such gatherings.  

When a group of activist women recently attempted to flout the decision, taking a Torah scroll out of a bag at the Kotel plaza to chant from it, police intervened and one of the women was detained for a short while. The activists proceeded to claim, falsely, that the detainee had been arrested for wearing a tallit, and set about vilifying the authorities and, of course, the nefarious haredim for trying to prevent the Kotel plaza from becoming a showcase for a torrent of non-traditional prayer services.

Adar, the month of Purim, is here, when we Jews commemorate the unity we first attained at Sinai and re-experienced in the time of Esther. We will come together to hear the Megillah read, send each other gifts of food, give alms to the poor. How wonderful it would be were the spirit of the time of Jewish year to lead us all — haredim and progressives, religious and secular, rightists and leftists and middle-of-the-roaders — to shun, indeed renounce, the provocation, fear mongering and name calling that seem to have infected Klal Yisrael of late.

(Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs of Agudath Israel of America.)

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