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.