Sitting At The Front Of The Bus


Jerusalem — Gratified though they are by last week’s High Court decision to ban “mehadrin” buses that separate passengers by gender, Israeli activists fear that the companies that run these lines will not always enforce it.

So they are taking it upon themselves to personally test compliance and are inviting adventurous tourists to join them.

The Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) is about to launch a year-long Rosa Parks-inspired Freedom Rider program whose foreign and local female volunteers will attempt to sit in the front section of so-called “kosher” buses, which until now have been reserved for men.

Egged, Israel’s largest public bus company, currently runs more than 50 mehadrin lines, and a smaller number are operated by other transportation companies. Egged began the kosher buses several years ago to meet the needs of fervently Orthodox Jews who were turning to private bus companies in order to minimize contact with the opposite sex.

IRAC, the legal arm of the Reform movement that petitioned the High Court on behalf of five women who had been verbally and/or physically attacked for sitting in the front of the bus, is hoping vigilance will lead to adherence.

Although the activists consider the court ruling a major victory — it awarded IRAC legal fees; requires bus companies to post signs stating that preventing passengers from sit where they choose is a punishable offense; and orders the transport ministry to enforce it — they are disappointed by two things: first, that the judges left the door open for “voluntary” segregation, provided none of the passengers objects. And second, that the practice of opening the back door for women passengers, who automatically head toward the rear, was not banned.

The court did, however, order IRAC, the Egged bus company and the Ministry of Transportation to revisit the matter in a year to determine the ruling’s on-the-ground effectiveness.

In theory, the ruling should end segregation on dozens of officially-designated haredi bus lines, as well as dozens of de facto haredi lines, operated by Egged, Dan and other, lesser-known transportation companies.

From their inception, the lines have been controversial. Over the years some of the passengers have heaped scorn, and even physical blows, on women daring to sit up front.

IRAC Director Anat Hoffman, whose organization has dispatched volunteer riders, albeit on a small scale, for several years, said the new Freedom Rider program is vital to the ruling’s enforcement. She doubts whether public bus drivers will have the stomach to confront haredi passengers who are breaking the law.

“We’re planning to have 1,000 riders this year and we’re inviting tourists to come and join us,” Hoffman said enthusiastically, despite a bout with laryngitis. “They’ll be able to report just how voluntary the seating will be. We’re confident we’ll be able to show that it isn’t voluntary, that women can’t always sit where they want to.”

The novelist Naomi Ragen, a longtime resident of Jerusalem and one of the IRAC petitioners to the High Court, told The Jewish Week that “seating on these buses has always been voluntary, and it has gone hand in hand with vicious verbal and even physical abuse of those women who refused to fall in line.”

Ragen decided to petition the court after she was assaulted while sitting in the front section of her local bus.

Ragen said signs informing passengers that seating is open, educating drivers to intervene if female passengers are harassed, and frequent ministry inspections “is all very well and good.”

But “the real judgment on whether or not Israel’s highest judicial body has done enough to uphold women’s rights will be decided not in the courtroom, but on the buses.

“I for one will be maintaining a vigilant watch over how this voluntary system will work in reality. If the abuse continues, we will go back to court and ask that these buses be outlawed altogether,” Ragen said.

Volunteers for the Freedom Riders project — named for the ‘60s American civil rights campaign to end racial segregation in the South — will be assigned a bus route that has, until now, been considered mehadrin and therefore gender segregated. There are several such routes that pass through haredi neighborhoods in Jerusalem as well as intercity routes between Jerusalem and the fervently Orthodox municipalities of Bnai Brak and Ramat Beit Shemesh.

The volunteers will be given an English-language questionnaire and may be asked to fill out an affidavit.

When, early this week, this reporter rode on the No. 40 mehadrin bus in modest attire between the Jerusalem haredi neighborhoods of Sanhedria and Ramot Gimmel, and the non-mehadrin but nonetheless segregated No. 2 from the Western Wall to the haredi neighborhood of Har Nof, she encountered stares but no resistance when she sat up front in the men’s section.

This despite the fact that Egged had not yet posted signs alerting passengers to the court ruling.

On the No. 2, three women, two of them Orthodox tourists from South Africa, sat either next to this writer or directly opposite her. When there were no more seats in the front section the male passengers chose to stand rather than sit in the back, where there was space.

“There has always been some flexibility on the No. 2,” a local woman in her 60s sitting next to the reporter explained. “If a woman is elderly or pregnant or unwell, no one cares if she sits up front.”

Hoffman confirmed this.

“The younger you are, the more haredi you look, the more likely you’ll be attacked. They want to bully the rebelliousness out of them early,” Hoffman asserted. “The worst violence has been encountered by our youngest volunteers who looked Orthodox. We’ve had quite a few Orthodox volunteers.”

When, toward the end of this reporter’s journey on the No. 40 mehadrin line, she moved to the “women’s section” at the back, she asked some of the women why they had headed, seemingly instinctively, to the rear.

Young and older women consistently gave the same answer:

“It’s just our way, to live modestly and to act modestly,” said a woman in her 50s. “Why change a system that serves our community?”

Asked how they learned that they should sit in back of the bus, a bunch of American seminary girls attending a gap-year program in Har Nof said they “had just heard it’s the right thing to do.”

“The men sit up front, the women in the back. This is our place,” said one of the 18-year-old students with sincerity.

A 20-year-old native Israeli said she had never seen a violent confrontation on a haredi bus but had witnessed a couple of occasions when men pressured women to relinquish their seats.

“It’s just better to sit separately,” the student said.