The need to restrain the burgeoning power of Jewish fundamentalism in Israel grows ever more urgent. The latest flashpoint is public transportation.
For several years, on an increasing number of public buses, women have been expected not only to cover their arms and legs, but also to board and sit separately from men, in the back of the vehicle. On January 31, in a long-awaited decision, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz announced that these so-called “mehadrin lines” — borrowing a phrase that implies very strict adherence to religious rules — were legal as long as they were “voluntary.” He said that the state would not tolerate the use of threats or violence to enforce the separation, a pledge that became immediately suspect after he also said that he found no evidence of such coercion used against women.
That would be news to the women who more than three years ago petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court to ban gender-based segregation on public buses, using as proof their own experiences of harassment. The Israeli writer Naomi Ragen, an Orthodox Jew, was one of those petitioners. She had been physically threatened on the No. 40 bus in Jerusalem because she refused to give up her seat to a man.
For the operator of a public bus to suggest that women sit in the back is akin to the person behind the luncheonette counter in Greensboro, N.C., declining to serve the four black students who arrived there 50 years ago and tried to order some food. There is nothing voluntary about segregation. The mere suggestion is demeaning and unacceptable in modern society.
We fear that this continued diminishment of women’s rights will open up a dangerous wedge in the already fraught relationship between American Jews and Israel. In the last few months, a woman was arrested for wearing a prayer shawl at the Kotel, and another woman was hauled in for police interrogation just for praying there, as she had done for years. “Where does it end?” Ragen asked in 2007 after her experience on the bus, when she said there were 30 mehadrin bus lines in the country. Now estimates put the number between 56 and 90.
Supporters of Israel must strongly protest Katz’s acquiescence to the segregationists. The right of Haredi men and women to live and worship as they please must be protected, of course. But Israel’s public sphere must be open to all. In a 21st-century democracy, no one should be relegated to the back of the bus.