Ain’t gonna sit in the back of the bus

Men and women board a bus in Jerusalem through the front door; on some lines women are expected to board through the rear door and sit in the rear.

Jerusalem had a pretty good bus system until some marketing jerk in Egged, the government-subsidized bus company, got the idea that the ultra-Orthodox community (one of the largest population sectors in Jerusalem) was an untapped source of revenue. All the ultra-Orthodox men were asking in exchange for their custom was that women board the bus through the rear door and sit in the back. And that they also be “modestly” dressed.

Soon Jerusalem had a bunch of mehadrin (“super-kosher”) bus lines, some of which were the only lines going to certain neighborhoods or cities, on which women who tried to sit anywhere but the back or whose clothing was not up to ultra-Orthodox standards of modesty were harassed, harangued, and even physically assaulted. Egged instructed its drivers not to intervene, since the separation was ostensibly voluntary, but sometimes they made women get off the bus—even late at night—because their clothing was not deemed sufficiently modest.

Four years ago the Israel Religious Action Center, of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, and five women who had been harassed on mehadrin bus lines petitioned the High Court of Justice in an attempt to put an end to this discriminatory practice.

It took four years to get a ruling, but now we have it. I’ve read all 12,185 words of it in Hebrew and I’m pleased that the honorable justices have declared, loud and clear, that enforced separation by sex on buses or in any other place of business is a violation of the Basic Law: Human Liberty and Dignity.

And yet, this ruling is not the last word. In an attempt at even-handedness in recognizing the alleged needs of ultra-Orthodox men, the justices have mandated a year’s test run of opening the rear doors to allow “voluntary separation,” that is, so women can get on the bus in the rear and sit in the rear. Thus, the justices have opened the back door in more ways than one to a perpetuation of the system of coerced separation (and social pressure is just another form of coercion).

What does the attempt to enforce sex segregation on buses, in shop queues, on sidewalks—and now even in Hechal Hatarbut, a bastion of secular culture in Tel Aviv—tell us about the kind of Judaism the would-be enforcers profess? It has a very bleak view of human beings, of both men and women.

Sex separation involves two issues. One is an ancient blood taboo. Women are considered unclean when they bleed vaginally (because they are menstruating, or have just given birth, or have some gynecological problem). A man who touches an unclean woman becomes unclean himself and is forbidden to participate in ritual practices until he has undergone ritual cleansing.

The second issue, and this is the larger and bleaker one, is that men must be protected from themselves. If not, though their thoughts should be focused on Torah at all times, lustful thoughts will intrude.

The solution to this problem in traditional, patriarchal societies has always been to put the burden of responsibility on women: to force them to cover their bodies from head to toe and to separate them physically from men by making them pray in the back of the synagogue, sit in the back of the bus, or just be confined to the home.

One of the arguments for sex-segregated buses is that the buses are overcrowded and that physical contact between men and women is inevitable. So why aren’t ultra-Orthodox men demanding the obvious, more buses?

If a man aspires to ritual purity, that’s fine with me. But let him take responsibility for himself, rather than dumping the responsibility on women.

And next time I hope the honorable justices make sure they find out what women want before they knock themelves out trying to protect the men from themselves.

Text and photo copyright 2011 by Esther Hecht. No part of the text or photo may be used without written permission of the author.

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6 Responses to “Ain’t gonna sit in the back of the bus”

  1. Mordechai Y. Scher Says:

    Supporting public segregation is a very bad idea on its own. What’s more, we also know it isn’t practical. Seems like a fair percentage of folks who will get on in the back won’t pay. Guess who? The very ones yelling for separation on the bus.

    What a horrible embarrassment! I can remember when we were proud of the public honesty, how folks got on in back and passed their money or kartisia forward to pay. And everyone faithfully helped the payment arrive, and the ticket make its way back.

  2. Abe Says:

    too bad this is almost the same ruling that they gave in february. remember when there was that trial run for the whole year where it was “voluntary segregation” and they would “monitor” the bus lines in question? looks like we’re back to that again. it’s really too bad the ultra-orthodox communities here can’t deal with public space in the same way that their counterpart communities in other countries have learned to cope with it.

  3. estherhecht Says:

    The High Court recognized that the previous monitoring was insufficient and ruled that this time around there had to be tighter monitoring.
    It’s a great way to spend taxpayers’ money in the poorest city in the country.

  4. Tamara Colloff-Bennett Says:

    Rosa Parks could have taught them all a thing or two, don’t you think??

    However, I thought advanced countries had gone beyond that era in the American Deep South a long time ago. It’s a pity – and scary — to hear about such a reversal and what’s going on in Israel right now.

    Thanks for this great article.

  5. Two comments on the state of things « Esther Hecht's Blog Says:

    […] reference, of course, was to extremists in the ultra-Orthodox community who would have women sit in the back of the bus. In an attempt to attract ultra-Orthodox clients, the bus cooperative Egged instituted […]

  6. Religion and State in Israel - January 17, 2011 (Section 1) | The Jewish Wave Says:

    […] Ain’t gonna sit in the back of the bus […]

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