Anatomy of a Bus Riot on the 480 to Tel Aviv

This morning, Arutz Sheva posted the following story:

A riot broke out on an Egged bus on Wednesday evening after a young secular man refused to allow a Belz Hasid to sit next to him. The 55-year-old Hasid boarded a Route 480 Egged bus travelling from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv. He noticed that the only available seat was next to the secular man, but when he tried to sit down the man called out to him, “A stink like you will not sit next to me”. A riot broke out until another passenger stood up and gave the Hasid his seat.

The riot is not the point of this essay, but rather the way the story was told.

The story is told from the point of view of the Belz Hasid. A quick read leaves the impression that the bus was full of sympathetic haredim who rioted on behalf of the man until one had the bright idea of giving over his seat.  It seems to be the parallel to the “woman assaulted for wanting to sit in a front seat on the bus”  stories that dominated the press last fall (Nov/Dec 2011), except that the good guy is the Hasid and the bad guy is the secular who refuses him a seat.

However, the quick reading is misleading.

  • The 480 bus goes from the central bus station in Jerusalem to the the Arlozorov train station in Tel Aviv. There has never been any attempt to declare the route Mehadrin (segregated) and most of its riders are secular people going to work, shop, or the beach in Tel Aviv. It would be hard to imagine there being enough Haredim on the bus to create a riot.
  • What sort of riot can be ended simply by offering to change seats? A riot is a “A violent disturbance of the peace by a crowd “. Usually when people are to the point of mob violence, they don’t stop to listen to simple reasonable solutions like changing seats unless they are a Monty Python sort of mob trying to lynch a suspected witch. Are we talking ‘a riot’ or a temper tantrum accompanied by this man and two of his travelling companions?
  • But suppose there really was a riot. How is a riot a reasonable response to an embarassing remark? When men spit and shamed children at the Orot Banot school in Beit Shemesh parents surely had a reason to be upset, but no newspaper ever reported the parents rioting. The closest they came to a “riot” was a peaceful organized demonstration planned in advance and carried out with all necessary permits.
  • The story takes great care to identify the “label” of the man wanting a seat and the man refusing him a seat. However, it never tells us the “label” of the wise passenger who agreed to switch seats with the Hasid. Could it be that the passenger was secular? Or even a woman?One would almost have to presume that this was so. If the secular man is truly motivated by hatred of Hasids and not the man’s smell, only a secular passenger would be a suitable substitute for the Belz seatmate. As a side note, admitting that the peace-maker was also secular would result in a good secular balancing out the bad secular. It would destroy the entire story of the poor Belz Hasid confronted by a hostile world.
  • Or could it be that the Hasid was actually smelly?   When the story was picked up by Failed Messiah, one commentator  observed that some haredi men wear woolen tallit katans and are not all that careful about washing them. If such a man goes to the mikvah in the morning the combination of wet skin and unlaundered wool will be pungent even from five feet away. There are also health issues that can create body odor even in a person with impeccable hygiene.

Voz Iz Neias also picked up the story. Interestingly many of the Voz Iz Neias readers also felt the story was lacking coherence. One wrote:

This sounds like a contrived story to give secular a bad name and divert attention from the recent stories about chareidim mistreating women. The term “stink” is not a term that secular yiddin in EY [Eretz Israel] use to describe Chareidim . If this particular individual had obvious bad personal hygiene, there would have been more respectful ways to make the point.

However, about a third of the Vos Iz Neias readers took the story at face value. One bemoaned that no one will arrest this secular man on their behalf:

will someone call this guy a secular sikrik? will he be arrested? will he get the same treatment like the charidim got? just wondering!

For all of Haredi talk about modesty and boundaries, it seems that none of the people sympathetic to the Belz Hasid understood the very significant difference in level of violence between a man rudely calling attention to someone’s body odor and the verbal and physical assaults on women who have sat in the front of the bus on “voluntarily” segregated buses.

The inability to see the difference suggests a profound lack of empathy or sensitivity. It is hard to excuse this as something appropriate to Haredi culture. It is hard to excuse it as something appropriate to any culture.

Smell is objectively verifiable. It is a public fact and can’t be easily kept private. To say that calling a woman a prostitute is equivalent of calling someone smelly implies that a woman’s sexuality is also public business. Alternatively, it accepts that sexuality is private, but then turns around and blames the woman for having made the private public by virtue of her choice of bus seat. To compare “you smell” to “you are a prostitute” either disowns the woman from her sexuality or blames the victim. Either way, it is cruel cynical way of looking at women and womanhood.

Second, acting like a person’s sexuality is public business, doesn’t make it so. Sex is not normally a public act. Sexual slanders are not objectively verifiable. There is no way for the victim of a sexual slander to disprove the charge leveled against them. A charge that can’t be refuted is the worst sort of lashon hara.

Third, publicly shouting that woman is a prostitute when she is not, makes some women feel vulnerable and exposed to unwanted advances. It implies a sexual availability to which she has not consented. It signals that others will look away if she is attacked because she had it coming. This is especially true if physical threats accompany the accusations.

Fourth, in the bus stories, the riot is always against the woman. She is isolated and without support. She is sometimes called “shiksha” (non-Jew), a term that isolates her even further. No one comes to her rescue until the police show up. In the Arutz Sheva story, the riot is for the “victim”. he is not alone and someone comes to his aid long before the police show up.

How can anyone compare an isolated victim to a man who has riot of people fighting on his behalf?

Categories: Exclusion of Jews | Tags: , | Leave a comment

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