On Monday after the bi-annual mass priestly blessing, two teens, 16 and 17 stood at a bus stop outside the Old City at the Dung Gate demanding women board at the back of the bus. They said they were hired by two Haredi men who offered to pay them 25 NIS/hr ($7/hr) . Police arrested the two teens for questioning and then later arrested the two men who hired them. (Sources: Jerusalem Post, Times of Israel )
To accommodate women who wish to sit separately from men, some Israeli public buses, known as Mehadrin buses, allow female passengers to board in the back of the bus. They either punch their ticket on their own with a puncher by the back door or pass their tickets up to the front. Individuals are allowed to voluntarily sit with their own gender of their own accord if they wish.
However, enforced bus segregation is illegal in Israel. Verbal threats and harassment, physical intimidation, or even acts that make it appear that bus segregation is an official policy are all illegal.
Despite this, harassment on mehadrin buses is an on-going problem. A January study by the ministry of transportation found that 1 in 20 bus inspectors who tried to sit where they wished on Mehadrin buses were threatened or harassed in some way. About 1 in 3 of harrassment incidents included physical intimidation.
Stories behind the Statistics
Although public reports of this behavior surface from time to time in the mainstream media, they do not indicate the scale of the problem. Most reports never make it beyond a personal circle of friends. Those that make it on line, like this one, quickly get lost in the blogosphere.
They do however serve to illustrate the passions involved and why even verbal threats and bullhorns can imply coercion and not just a simple request. In 2004, author Naomi Regan was verbally intimidated and threatened while the bus driver refused to interfere. In 2005, a woman named Ronit needed to sit in the front of the bus where she could look out the front window because of motion sickness. The bus driver did not force her to the back of the bus, but neither did he tell the men to stop harassing her.
In 2010, Oriyah Ferdheim boarded the 497 bus from Beit Shemesh to Yahud for her first day of National Service. When five zeolots found her in the wrong seat they kicked, spit on, and pelted with various objects. A police officer stopped the bus in a Haredi neighborhood in Ramat Beit Shemesh and told the crowd to leave her alone, but as soon as he left a mob of people boarded the bus and began attacking her. An off-duty soldier defended her with his own body. The police officer was unable to stop the attack without several squad cars for reinforcements. A year later Oriyah was still suffering nightmares from the incident.
Meida access plays a role in our awareness of the issue. At the end of 2011, three more attacks made it into the mainstream media. One victim, Tanya Rosenblit, worked for a TV news organization. Understandably it received heavy coverage, even gaining mention on a New York Times blog. Even politicians got involved. Both Netanyah and then opposition leader Tzipi Livni spoke out in support of Rosenblit.
A second story involved a Haredi woman from the Gur community, Yocheved Horowitz. HaAretz devoted two articles to the story (2011-12-23 and 2011-12-30). But without media allies or police drama to keep the story alive, the story soon dropped off the pages of HaAretz. No other paper picked it up.
But if they want segregation, who are we to Interfere?
Until recently, Israelis have had mixed feelings about bus harassment stories. While most agree that the harassment itself is wrong, the victims are often blamed for having created the situation. If a person doesn’t want to play by the social rules they shouldn’t ride the buses, so the argument goes. If they do, they should respect the fact that most riders are haredi and have different cultural expectations.
The most obvious difficulty with this argument is that many of the women who have been harassed are themselves religious women. Yocheved Horowitz is a member of the Gur community. Oriya Ferdheim is part of the Dati Leumi community. Nor are these isolated examples. According to a Hiddush study in the spring of 2010, nearly a third of Haredim (29% of men, 31% of women) either oppose segregated buses or want to see the number of segregated lines reduced.
Another argument in defense of Haredi buses is the claim that riding in mixed buses violates their religious beliefs. The bus system is subsidized by the state. This includes the Mehadrin bus lines. Since the state must serve all citizens, it must provide suitable services to all of its citizens, including its Haredi citizens.
However, this argument cuts both ways. Those supporting the right to segregated buses are usually very selective in which Jewish rights they believe the state should support. Recognition of marriage, access to the Kotel for prayer, and burial are also services provided by the state, yet the state does not recognize marriages performed by Ethiopian priests or Reform and Conservative rabbis. Egalitarian prayer practices are banned from the kotel and even Rashi’s daughters who wore tallit and tefillin could not show up at the Kotel and pray according to their custom.
If one says that freedom of Judaism is limited to orthodox interpretations of Halachah, the religious freedom argument still falls. Moshe Feinstein, considered one of the greatest orthodox halachic deciders of the 20th century, ruled that men and women could ride together even on a croweded bus where they were pressing up against each other. If both Feinstein and the Haredi position are legitimate, then there is no grounds for Haredim to say that mixed gender buses discriminate against them. If pro-segregationists say that they don’t go by Feinstein, then the claim that we can have state accommodation to religion without state recognition of sectarian interpretations falls.
A second problem with the religious freedom argument is that accommodation to pro-segregationists excludes anti-segregationists. Many of the Mehadrin bus routes cannot support dual direct bus lines, one segregated and one not. The alternative non-segregated routes involve multiple transfers, round-about travel routes, more time, and more money. According to Hiddush’s 2011 religion and state survey , 47% of women (50% non ultra orthodox) say they are not willing to ride segregated buses.
Haredim may not be fully aware of how aversive these buses are to the general public. According to the same Hiddush study Haredi men estimated that only 29% of non-Haredi women would refuse to ride segregated buses, rather than the actual number of 50%. If they were fully aware of how adverse these buses are, some at least might not be so in favor of segregation.
Police reaction to Harassment
Although harassment and physical threats are illegal, historically police response has been hands off in these bus confrontations. Even though Ferdheim had already been physically assaulted when the police officer first entered the bus, none of the assailants were arrested or removed from the bus. Nor was this because the police officer felt they posed no further danger. Rather, he suggested to Ferdheim that she move to the back for her own safety. The same thing happened to Tanya Rosenblit. When the bus driver called the police, the police initially tried to convince Rosenblit to be ‘respectful’ and move to the back of the bus.
This trend has begun to change, but it is hard to know whether the chance applies to some well publicized cases or is an ongoing pattern with the Israeli police. At the end of 2011, Doron Matalon, an Israeli soldier on her way back to her IDF base was called a “slut” by a Haredi man who was angered by her refusal to go to the back of the bus. Doron had been harrassed by various passengers on many other ocassions and had even been shoved. This time, with her father’s encouragement, she called the police. The man was arrested and banned from using the bus .
The arrests of the two teens and their Haredi employers represents another step forward in the protection of women’s right to chose their seat on a bus. Rather than wait for an attack to take place, the police intervened when public pressure was being exerted on women riders.
However, law enforcement is a multi-stage process that involves much more than police intervention and arrests. So far people have only been arrested for questioning. It remains to be seen if charges will be filed and if those charges will lead to any sort of meaninful conviction. Without legal consequences it is unlikely that self-appointed police in the Haredi community will stop their harassment.