(JTA) — Three years ago, a 57-year-old grandmother got on a bus in Israel departing Rechovot for Givat Shmuel and sat in a vacant seat in the front.
Shortly after taking her seat, the woman was approached by a fervently Orthodox man who demanded she move to the back of the bus with the rest of the women.
Unbeknownst to the woman, who asked JTA to be identified only as H., she had boarded one of the so-called mehadrin (super kosher) bus lines, on which the predominantly ultra-Orthodox, or haredi, ridership imposes sex-segregated seating. The man told H. that segregated seating had been sanctioned by the rabbis and by Egged, the state-owned bus company that operates the line.
H., who is herself religious, refused, prompting a barrage of verbal abuse from the man.
“With the exception of being physically harmed, I was hurt in every manner,” H. told JTA. “He called me every name imaginable. I was shocked, and I didn’t know how to respond to him.”
The man harassed her for the entire ride. Nobody, including the driver, came to her aid.
H. is among a group of women who filed affidavits as part of a petition to Israel’s Supreme Court to ban gender-based segregation on Israeli public buses. The petition was filed by the Israel Religious Action Center, which is associated with the Reform movement.
Before issuing any ruling, the court referred the matter to Israel’s Transportation Ministry. In January, more than three years since the IRAC petition was filed, Israeli Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz is expected to issue the government’s official position.
Some haredi passengers defend sex segregation, saying it upholds Jewish rules concerning sexual modesty. On mehadrin lines, women sit in the back and men in the front in order to avoid physical contact. Drivers do not enforce this code, but the IRAC considers such practices on public buses to be a fundamental violation of women’s rights. It also says the practice has no basis in Jewish law, or halachah.
The IRAC isn’t alone. As esteemed a rabbinical authority as the late Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, one of the preeminent Orthodox sages of the 20th century, permitted co-ed seating on public transportation.
Sex segregation on public buses in Israel is a relatively new phenomenon, but it’s growing. It first appeared 10 years ago on a line connecting Jerusalem with the nearby town of Beit Shemesh. Today, IRAC estimates there are 100 such lines currently in operation across the country.
A spokesperson for Egged said the government-owned company had no agenda of its own and would cooperate fully with whatever decision the transportation minister makes.
A spokesman for Katz, Avner Ovadia, said the minister is reviewing a committee’s recommendations on the matter and has not yet reached a decision.
“We’re listening to everybody and will make our decision soon,” Ovadia said.
Anat Hoffman, the executive director of IRAC, said her group’s problem is not with haredi mores, but with the way men sometimes compel women to go to the back of the bus.
Five years ago, the novelist Naomi Ragen, who lives in Israel but writes in English, had an experience much like that of H. aboard a bus bound for her home in the Ramot neighborhood of Jerusalem.
“One guy got on the bus sweating bullets and started shouting at me, ‘What are you doing?! It’s against the law!” Ragen recalls of her decision to sit up front. “The way he was speaking to me I really did feel like Rosa Parks. Had he said ‘Excuse me,’ I may have been more willing to consider his request. But since he turned it into such an issue there was no way I could lose my dignity as a human being and move to the back.”
Ragen later penned a column about her experience in the Jerusalem Post, comparing her experience with violations of women’s rights in Afghanistan. When IRAC contacted her and asked her to submit an affidavit to the High Court, she willingly obliged.
She said she believes Katz “really doesn’t want to become the minister that will allow Israel to become Iran.”
“Whatever the decision is, the end result is that women will not be abused on buses,” Ragen said. “Nobody knew about this case before we filed. If we find the abuses are continuing we’re going straight back to court. It’s a long struggle, but there’s no way to reconcile democracy and this kind of antiquated thinking.”