Signs of Progress

Concrete signs that protest and activism is making an impact. Essays and food for thought when change seems a long ways away.

A Sign of Change? Police Fight Kotel Bus Segregation Attempt

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 PostTimes 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.

Categories: Gender Segregation, Signs of Progress | Tags: , , | Leave a comment

Toldot Aharon: Kudos for Taking a Stand

Admor of Toldot Aharon

In the middle of Februaray Shmuel Pappenheim, a Toldot Aharon Hassid who has been working to help Haredim get into the workforce, was beaten up by members of his synagogue when he attempted to go to Friday night prayers. They were angry about an interview he gave to HaAretz at the end of last December (2011). The attack began with demands he leave his shul, followed by name calling. When he refused to leave, the attack became physical. He was beaten all over his body, resulting in a broken shoulder.

So often rabbis in the Haredi community are unwilling to take a stand, but not this time. The Admor of Toldot Aharon called for the community to distance themselves from the attackesrs and convened a special meeting of the community council. According to Tzedek-Tzedek , reporting several days later,

The Toldos Aharon rabbinic leadership has come out strongly against the attackers and are implementing sanctions against the attackers.

Abuse is never justified and it is good to see Jews taking a stand.

Categories: Building a Just Israel, Signs of Progress | Tags: , , | 1 Comment

First Ever Egalitarian Mincha in the Knesset Synagogue

Tuesday was a moment of triumph and a reminder of troubles faced by religious non-orthodox Jews in Israel. On Tuesday, January 24, for the first time in the history of the state of Israel, an egalitarian minyan prayed mincha in the Knesset synagogue.

The service was lead by Canadian Rabbi Jennifer Gorman. Two days later she wrote in her blog:

On Tuesday I led Mincha in an egalitarian minyan at the Knesset. It happened quietly, no fanfare at the time, but the joy and pride in the room was palpable. I’ve been jotting down notes since, trying to get the experience on paper, but, while I have pages of notes for every other day, my notes on this experience seem to consist of fragments and single words. The emotion is like a balloon inside me that seems to keep inflating. I left the Knesset shaking, tears in my eyes, my cheeks hurting from smiling, but even so, it wasn’t until the following day morning, seeing it in the news, that the significance really hit me. It’s like waking over and over on my birthday to the greatest present ever. With all my oral skills, the word that keeps repeating is, “wow.”

Rabbi Alan Silverstein, chari of the US Masorti Foundation, told the Jerusalem post:

It was an inspiring service and we were extremely happy to be praying in the beautiful synagogue of the parliament of the Jewish state. Each Shabbat we pray for the well-being of the State of Israel in Conservative communities worldwide, and here we had the opportunity to do this great mitzva in the synagogue of the Israeli Knesset, one of the most important symbols of Jewish sovereignty.

But there were also reminders of predjudice against non-orthodox practices, beginning with the way the historic minyan was reported in Israeli newspapers. The two major Israeli news services that covered the story could not bring themselves to acall the prayer service a minyan. The Jerusalem Post called it a “prayer service”. Ynet called it a “quorum”.

Haredi Members of the Knesset were unhappy but felt they had little ground for objection since the knesset synagogue was a public space. MK Israel Eichler (United Torah Judaism) told Ynet “Unfortunately, I know where we live. There’s nothing we can do about it.”

MK Nissim Zeev (Shas) equated the service to an arab prayer service and said that the only reason that the egalitarian minyan was tolerated was that the minyan was not at the regular time. At the regular prayer time it would have been a disgrace and provocation. . He referred to the egalitarian minyan as a “glorification of women” and told Ynet:

Even if Muhammad asks to pray there, I’ll say ‘tfadal’ (‘go ahead’ in Arabic)….”Thank God, Israel doesn’t have many communities of this kind, which sow the rift among the people of Israel … But when they arrive, you can’t prevent them from doing so in a public place like the Knesset.

In a phone interview with the Canadian Jewish News , Jennifer Gorman said that they were not “looking to make waves”. Masorti Jews davened every day and had asked in advance if the chapel would be available for them to use after their meetings with Knesset leaders.

Earlier in the day delegates from the Masort/Conservative movement met with MKs from Labor, Kadima, Likud, and Israel Beiteinu. The meetings focused on the impact of religious extremism on Israelis abroad.

The problem of viewing non-orthodox Jewish ritual as some sort of “less than” ritual with the same standing as Arab prayer is well known.

David Lissy, executive-director and CEO of the US Masorti Foundation observed

All of us love and support Israel and members of our communities are part of the central leadership of AIPAC, Hadassah and the Jewish Federations but the State of Israel degrades us time and again when it says that we are second-class Jews that are rabbis cannot conduct wedding ceremonies here and that our converts are not considered Jewish enough for the Jewish state. The discrimination against non-Orthodox movements in Israel does massive damage to the image of Israel as a state for all Jews.

Israeli Seth Farber, director of the ITIM religious rights group and an Orthodox rabbi seconded that observation. He told The Jerusalem Post that

…some very difficult decisions lie ahead. A lot of work still needs to be done to make Jews of all denominations feel comfortable in Israel, There isn’t enough strategic thinking going on to think about how Israel can be a homeland for all Jews. The state wasn’t founded to be insular and indifferent to Jewish people and so there needs to begin a sincere dialogue with Diaspora communities to tackle these issues.

You can see more pictures of the minyan here.


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

Modern Orthodox Religious Zionists Seek a Public Voice

On Wednesday, February 1, 2012 in Natanya non-hardal religious Zionist leaders will meet to inaugurate Beit Hillel, a new organization dedicated to voicing the opinions of the non-Hardal religious Zionist on key issues facing Israel.

The new group was first announced last week in an article in Srugim.

The group was formed in response to increasing concern that extremist ultra-orthodox rabbis and settler leaders were becoming the public voice of national religious Judaism. A large number of national religious did not agree with their views on women, the IDF, and the state. According to one of the founders, Rabbi Chaim Navon, leader of the Shimshoni congregation in Modi’in, “To our great sorrow, religious Zionism is split, but only one faction’s voice was being heard. We are the voice of the other part, that hasn’t been sufficiently heard.”

Beit Hillel will give voice to religious Zionists who believe in “women’s empowerment, oppose discrimination and racism, support democracy, see themselves as an integral part of Israeli society and are loyal to the State of Israel and its institutions, including the IDF, the police, and the courts.”

Women will play a significant role in Beit Hillel. The founder, Oshra Koren, is a woman and women will be given an equal vote in the organizations decisions. Congregational rabbis will play a dominant role, reflecting a religious Zionism that accounts for the needs of families. Existing religious Zionist organizations representing the national religious tend to be dominated by yeshiva rabbis.

Ten rabbis joined with Oshra Koren to start Beit Hillel.  Among the ten are Ohad Tehar-Lev, Amnon Bazek, Tzachi Hershkowitz, , Ronen Lubitz , Chaim Navon .   The group has been quickly adding members to this core group.  As of the end of January, the new group includes 110 rabbis, 30 women Torah scholars, and rabbinic wives who have developed a reputation as community leaders.

Many of the rabbis are also involved in Tzohar. However, Tzohar has decided to stay politically neutral. The rabbis have joined this new group because they want an opportunity to take an active role in the future of the state.

Malka Bina, founder of Matan; Rabbi Yuval Cherlow of the Petach Tivka Hesder Yeshiva, and Daniel Hershkowitz, minister of Science and Technology will all address the founding conference on February 1. One of the first projects planned for the new organization is a Beit Midrash that will develop responsa to address the halachic issues raised by women’s public voice and face.

For more information on the conference see the Beit Hillel Website:


Categories: Building a Just Israel, Signs of Progress | Tags: , | Leave a comment

A Time for Shehecheyanu (but not Dayenu)

Three years ago when Rachel Azaria tried to run for Jerusalem city counsel she couldn’t even get her campaign picture on city buses.   The issue briefly made the news and then disappeared.

This fall (Nov, 2011) the Israeli National Transplant Center (ADI) omitted women on bus posters for its Jerusalem organ donor card campaign.  But this time when the alarm was raised, the issue didn’t go away.  ADI relaunched their ad campaign in Jerusalem, this time with pictures of women.   Students and falculty at Jerusalem’s School of Visual Theatre worked together to create posters of headless influential Israeli women and plastered them around town in protest.  Israeli Masorti  Rabbi Uri Ayalon started a facebook page Uncensored and coordinated with the Jerusalem group Yerushalmim to organize a campaign that showed images of six women in 150 posters across Jerusalem.  The New Israel Fundannounced they were collecting pictures of women for their own  poster campaign in Jerusalem.   The story was covered in places as far flung as Los AngelesNew YorkWashington DC,  the UK, Australia and even Taipai and Sri Lanka.

When it became clear that part of the reason for the disappearance of women from bus advertisements was lax enforcement of anti-vandalism laws, several groups joined together to petition the Israeli Supreme Court to force the police, the Ministry of Transportation, Egged, and Cnaan Media  to display women on bus posters.

In 2006, Miriam Shear was slapped, kicked, punched, and pushed for refusing to move back to the bus, but the story attracted little attention outside of feminist circles. In Novemeber 2011,  when Tonya Rosenblitt’s refusal to move to the back of the bus caused a small Haredi demonstration that stopped the bus in its tracks,  Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Tzipi Livni, the opposition leader and even US Secretary of State Hilary Clinton weighed in on the issue.

For years, Puah has held a conference on fertility medicine and halakhah.  Women have not been allowed to speak from the dias even when they were the premier expert.   The issue never went beyond a local protest.  This year it triggered a formal statement by the Israeli Medical Association  that declared exclusionary conferences unethical and forbid participation at these conferences.

Why now?  What next?

There seem to be two factors at work behind the current attention given the exclusion of women.   First,  the rabbinic reaction to the decommissioning of  10 soldiers who walked out of an IDF ceremony struck a tender cord with many Israelis.  For years, Haredi attitudes towards women have been viewed as a  Haredi problem.  If secular Israelis got entangled in those issues it was their own fault for venturing into the world of the Haredim.    However, nearly every Israeli spends time in the army.   There is no escape if the army caves into rabbinic demands and an officer corps that can’t bear to hear or look at a woman develops.

Second, some significant and very effective PR people have finally jumped on board.  This is particularly notable in the case of Beit Shemesh and the story of Naama Margolis.  The best and most just causes in the world go nowhere without good marketing and public exposure.

However, it should be noted that  all of the activism and consciousness raising mentioned above  is outside of the government, even when it has the public support of  politicians.   There is still an on-going government policy of appeasement and accomodation to  religious extremism.  Even when the government announces its support for anti-exclusion this needs to be taken with a grain of salt.  The Israeli government is famous for making public statements to the media and then quietly backtracking on them.

Even though we are a long way away from a Jewish state that fully and consistently stands up for women and the plurality of Jewish views, it is important to stop and note that a significant step forward has been made this fall and winter.

The second week of January City Councillor Rachel Azaria and several other women activists gathered at the Israel Democracy Institute to discuss the current situation.    Speaking at the round table of recent events, Azaria said

I felt there were times I needed to pray ‘shehecheyanu’  because something is really changing …I feel we’re at a point where we’re redesigning the rules of the game. The key words are solidarity and responsibility, and I feel we’re going in the right direction.

Categories: Signs of Progress | Leave a comment

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