The government’s continuing toleration of gender-separated buses, with men sitting in the front and the women in the back, has struck a nerve with the Israeli public, sparking an angry reaction that has been gathering momentum in recent weeks. A large demonstration against the separated buses has taken place, a hotline has been set up for women’s complaints and now a poster campaign protesting the practice has begun. Ynet reports:
Dozens of young people protesting the separation between men and women on public transportation in Jerusalem toured a number of cities Tuesday night where they hung signs in protest of the “mehadrin lines” that stipulate such a separation. The activists, who will hold a protest in the capital in another two weeks, are also calling for Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, who has allowed the gender separation to be instated, to step down.
Katz has continued to allow the lines to operate in defiance of a temporary injunction issued by Israel’s high court. And the number of bus lines is growing: Currently, such segregated buses operate in Arad, Ashdod, Bat Yam, Bnai Brak, Jerusalem and Tiberias. The protest posters were put up as part of a campaign called “A Stop in Time.”
The protest posters, plastered in the dark of night on hundreds of bus stops across the country had a “Big Brother” feel — appearing as if they had been put up by a Tehran-style dictatorship and depicting a frightening vision of the future. “This bus stop is mehadrin kosher. Thus, men enter and sit down in the front; women and all the rest — to the back,” the posters read. Underneath the headline is an illustration showing that “women, blacks, and minorities” belong in the back along with a “kashrut stamp” showing that the line has been deemed kosher “with the oversight of the transportation minister and subsidized by the State.”
Upsetting as it may be to those who hold women’s right to pray openly at the Western Wall compound openly — not to mention the acts of violence against them — it has consistently been difficult to rally Israeli women behind the cause, or engage the sustained interest of the media. Why? My theory: Israel has a tradition of ceding control of religious sites to the more extremely religious elements of the community. The ultra-Orthodox hegemony on the Western Wall is an extension of the reality that many Israelis may not like, but which they are used to.
But public buses are not religious sites. And the right of a woman to ride any public bus without being shunted to the back is a cause that more Israelis are willing to fight for than the right to pray at the Wall in an egalitarian fashion.
Another unique aspect of this struggle, which has grabbed media interest is the fact that is not a secular-vs.-Orthodox issue. Consistently, Orthodox women such as Tzvia Greenberg and Naomi Ragen are at the forefront of the fight.
A recent radio broadcast featured women who had called in to a new hotline set up for complaints about harassment on segregated buses. These women sat in front of a “mehadrin” line not in acts of defiant protest, but for practical reasons. One who had had just undergone an operation could barely see or speak and needed the driver’s assistance. Another chose to sit in the front in because she said sitting in the back makes her nauseated.
In both cases, the women boarded a bus when it was empty. When men began to get on, they were instructed to move to the back. When they refused, the women — all Orthodox mothers and grandmothers — were reportedly screamed at, threatened, and called “strumpets,” “sinners,”and “loose women.” According to that broadcast, several of the women were told that “The Messiah won’t come” because apparently, arriving in a world where women and men sit side by side, would be more than he could bear.