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Israel’s Freedom Riders

On some Israeli buses, only men sit in the front. With the law on their side, some women are fighting back.

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Israeli women sit at the front of a bus in defiance of demands by hardliners that women sit at the back, in Jerusalem on Jan. 1, 2012. (Menahem Kahana/AFP/Getty Images)

It was morning rush hour in Jerusalem and I boarded a crowded bus, Egged No. 56, and claimed one of the last empty seats in the front. The man in the seat next to mine turned the brim of his black hat against me and nervously tapped his fingers on the window. Two stops later, he got up and the man sitting across from me got up, too.

The bus rattled on. Women boarded the bus—but mostly through the rear door. Pregnant women, elderly women, schoolgirls cradling books, middle-aged women holding packages, fashionably dressed twentysomethings with Gucci pocketbooks, designer sunglasses, stylish wigs. They hurried through the front section toward the back of the bus, deliberately passing the empty seats near me. The men also avoided sitting there. This was once a mehadrin, or sex-segregated, bus line—struck down as illegal by the Israeli Supreme Court on Jan. 5, 2011—but for these riders, sex-segregation is not a thing of the past. Men still ride in the front and women in the back.

Segregated buses made a splash in the Israeli media in December 2011 when Tanya Rosenblit, 28, sat in the front of a public bus going from Ashdod to Jerusalem and refused an ultra-Orthodox man’s demand that she go to the back. The man prevented the bus from moving, enlisting his friends to join his protest. When the bus driver called a police officer, he tried to persuade Rosenblit to comply. She did not back down, and eventually the bus took off without the male passenger. “I cannot humiliate myself in order to respect someone else,” Rosenblit wrote. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, President Shimon Peres, and other politicians roundly condemned bus segregation.

But, though there are no more de jure segregated bus lines, many former mehadrin bus lines resolutely maintain de facto segregation. I’d volunteered to take this bus as a Freedom Rider, a volunteer group of men and women who, under the auspices of the Jerusalem-based Israel Religious Action Center, monitor the everyday implementation of bus desegregation. Since the Supreme Court ruling, hundreds of Freedom Riders have traveled on buses to demonstrate to the public that women are legally entitled to sit wherever they want. And as I rode this bus—and several others for an entire morning this month—I thought about how the segregation of women on public buses symbolizes something far greater than just a seating arrangement. It is part of the agenda set by a very small minority of extremists within Israel’s ultra-Orthodox community (which is itself a minority) to push women not only to the back of the bus—but to the back of Israeli public space. The country I love and have lived in for the past 21 years is threatened by extremists who believe that a woman’s modesty is defined by her invisibility.

“Buses are democracy at its finest—you pay your fare, you take your seat,” said Steven Beck, the IRAC director of Israel-Diaspora Relations, who was riding the bus with me, along with two other women visiting from America. Beck stood in the middle of the bus to watch passengers’ reactions; in response to a Haredi man who said that our presence in the front of the bus was a provocation, Beck said, “We’re not trying to change Haredi society; we just want to make sure that public services are accessible to everyone.”

The Egged Bus Company, the largest in Israel, began its segregated mehadrin bus lines in 1998 to lure passengers away from another bus company. After several law suits were filed by women who were harassed and beaten for refusing to go to the back of a mehadrin bus (including writer Naomi Ragen), the Israeli Supreme Court outlawed these buses. Orly Erez Likhovski, an IRAC lawyer specializing in sex discrimination cases, told me that now, “If someone tells you that the bus is mehadrin and you have to move because of your sex then it is ground for civil damages.’’

As part of the Supreme Court decision, Likhovski said, the Egged Company is required to place stickers on buses stating, “All passengers are permitted to sit wherever they choose … harassing a passenger about this matter could be considered a criminal offense.” Still, the stickers (which are sometimes removed) and the Supreme Court ruling have done little to change the facts on the ground.

They have, however, bolstered women who refuse to budge. After my first bus ride of the morning, I decided, somewhat nervously, to continue riding former mehadrin buses—alone. I waited for another bus in the heart of downtown Jerusalem and got on. When I asked the driver where I should sit, he said “in the back.” But after telling him I wanted to sit in the front, he told me to do whatever I want, just to know that “people who ride this bus want it to be half-half: men in the front and women in the back. And I don’t want to deal with any problems. I just want to focus on driving the bus.”

The Supreme Court ruling demands that drivers take proactive action to defend a woman’s decision to sit where she wants. The driver is held personally liable, which is probably why this driver would have preferred I sat in the back. Likhovski said that since the Rosenblit case, more women have come forward to sue bus drivers; she recently won a case in which a judge awarded a woman 4,000 shekels against a driver who told her to move to the back.

I took my seat in front. The next woman who boarded the bus said to me, “This is a mehadrin bus. You should go to the back.”

“There’s really no such thing as mehadrin buses anymore,” I told her. “And did you know that in the United States, American blacks used to have to sit in the back of buses?”

“That was for discrimination,” she said. “This is for modesty. It gives men more respect.”

Neta Ravid, a neuroscience doctoral student at Hebrew University who helped found the Freedom Riders Campaign after men yelled at her to go to the back of a bus traveling from Arad to Jerusalem, disagreed. “It’s not a question of modesty but of equality,” Ravid said. “Pushing women to the back leads to the idea that women should be hidden. This will have dangerous results for Israeli society.”

On my second bus loop around the city, the next bus driver told me that he’s seen husbands and wives talk to each other on cellphones from separate sections of the same bus. He told me I could sit anywhere moments before a group of Haredi teenagers boarded. “Go to the back of the bus!” One of them said to me and then added, “Ichsa,” which means disgusting.

“All passengers can sit wherever they want,” the bus driver said loudly.

I said nothing but refused to move from my seat in the front. A short while later, an older woman with two shopping bags got on.

“Go to the back,” the boys repeated.

“You can go sit in the back,” the woman said, her voice shaky. “If it’s your private car, you can tell me what to do, but this bus is for everyone.” The woman plopped herself down next to me. “I keep kosher at home, I follow the laws,” she said, telling me only her first name, Rivka, and her age, 64. “I should listen to them? They should tell me what to do?”

At the time of its ruling, the Supreme Court granted the Ministry of Transportation a one-year trial period in which women would be allowed to board former mehadrin buses through the rear door—something they are not allowed to do on regular lines. Some Haredi leaders have put up announcements urging women to insist on boarding all buses through the rear door—contradicting the court ruling—and reminding them to “obtain a monthly pass in order to board through the second door without having to pass among the men.” In fact, I’d seen several women send their sons or daughters up to the front to pay the bus fare. Likhovski, the attorney, said that the Ministry of Transportation is expected to issue its decision on whether to completely ban rear-door boarding in a matter of days.

Voluntary sex-segregation also means that husbands and wives do not—cannot—sit together. Reached by telephone, a Hasidic Orthodox woman I know, who requested anonymity for fear of communal repercussions against her children, said that when she and her husband have traveled together on buses, other passengers have screamed at them to separate. “They yelled and even spit at me, but we stayed right where we were,” she said.

“They don’t want us to do what we want,” she added. “If I’m pregnant and I don’t feel well or I want to sit with my husband wherever there’s an empty seat, then I’ll sit. I don’t care.”

“So, do you want to ride the buses again with me?” I asked.

“I have six little kids, thank God,” she said. “Maybe in a few years. Who has time to ride the buses now?”


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Harold Goldmeier says:

Your ventose post reeks of sensationalism. We ride the buses in J. and Bet Shemesh (thru B) and have never seen a confrontation. We see thousands of haredim ride mixed buses, and more often than not, a young person offers his/her seat to a pregnant woman or elderly passenger–go find that happening in the U.S. There you are more likely to get mugged or raped on public transportation. How can a tiny minority of extremists within a minority “threaten” the country as you write. These are bad acts, and the perpetrators should be arrested, but they are not an existencial threat to Israel. Get a life and stop riding buses around the City looking for trouble.
Dr. Goldmeier is a writer on social and public policy and business development advising companies on these matters. His articles appear in national publications, and on Life in Israel and Arutz Sheva.

    Your anectodotes are just that, anectdotes.

    So too, your claims of getting mugged or raped on public transportation in the United States, not only not just anectdotal at best, but hyperbole, if not outright false.

    The threat to Israel, comes from the not-so-subtle pressure being exerted by the minority on the wider population. When all that’s needed are threats and coercion, then you don’t need actual violence. The fact that women are actually complying with these restrictions, despite its illegality under the law provides an example of the extent of the threat.

    Your complaint that Ms. Bletter is “looking for trouble” adds to the evidence that there is a threat to woman who dare to ride in the front of the bus. All the more reason that not only should she continue to ride on the bus, but report on it as well.

    AYid says:

    Harold, of course it’s sensationalism. The vibrant future in Israel is Torah and mitzah observance. The past, is tired, played out liberal theology. Everyone knows this. Thus, those who have managed to create a 50% plus intermarriage rate in America, in an attempt to “refresh” their aging brand in Israel import their stale 1960s hagiography. This junk plays nowhere outside the blogosphere,and among a a privileged few poor little rich kids in TelAviv. The real struggle is in Yeduda and Shomrom where a Jew takes his life in his hand riding a bus. The real freedom riders are the courageous young people resisting global program of ethnic cleansing of the Jews from their ancestral homeland.

      Jacob Goldfarb says:

      Fundamentalists in every part of the world are bringing us back to the dark ages. It is extreme Judiasm, extreme Islam, and evangelicals in the US. One thing all of these religious beliefs have in common is the subjugation of women. Men have decided that women have to be “modest” so that they are protected from the urges of other men. Why don’t men try to control themselves-or is that too difficult a concept. I am not a second class citizen and will not live in a world that is anti-science and pro-ignorance. It is sickening to contemplate what kind of world these religious not jobs are aspiring to.

        AYid says:

        Desmond Morris, author of the 1960s anthropology book “The Naked Ape” points out that humans are the only mammals that are sexually stimulated visually. We have no “mating season.” Our noses aren’t sensitive enough to no sniff out females needing to mate. As it says “haayin roeh v’ha leiv chomed.” The eye sees and the heart desires.” Asking men to disconnect from their sexuality is actually SUBJUGATION of men, is unnatural and unnecessary. The Torah has shown us a way in which a society can function without promiscuity and all the damage that results from routinized sexuality – the answer is morality and modesty. Why don’t you ask the women in these communities whether or not they want liberal elites rescuing them from the dignity and majesty accorded by the Torah to the Jewish woman? These women don’t want their half naked bodies used to sell everything from cars to sneakers as is done in your “enlightened’ society.

Nanush Glasser says:

Unfortunately, the world is becoming full of “Professional Zadikim” Professional Holy Men.
Once upon a time Jews went to their community rabbi when they had questions. He knew each member, and their tribulations. He knew that if he told that poor old woman, that the spot in the egg was probably blood, that she would go to sleep hungry. So he tried his very best to be lenient.

Todays Halachic authorities are head of Yeshivas and Hassidic Admorim. They sit in their ivory towers, and only meet other men of their own impossibly high standards. Men who get paid to sit and learn and be religious. And who must justify their being supported, buy acts of exaggerated piety. So the authorities give theoretical answers to theoretical questions.

But the secular, academic world is the just as bad. We have professors or education, who have never actually been in a classroom with 8 year olds. All that matters is theory, proved by statistics. And we have professors of literary theory, who expect the world (i.e. Israel and the USA) to act according to impossible ethical standards. Standards that they have never had to test on themselves, for they have never actually experienced the fear of battle and terror, the quandaries of police work, or even the tediousness of being an 18 year old on guard duty.

Lastly, we have the true “Professional Zadikim” within Israel – the employees of the Civil Rights industry, the various NGOs with enormous salaries paid for by the EU, New Israel Fund and Ford Foundation. Once again, expecting Jews to behave according to their theoretical ethical standards, divorced from reality, while considering the Arabs and all of the other “indigenous” peoples to be no more than children, from whom no practical or moral responsibility should be expected.

I have both kinds in my extended family, the religious fanatics, and the holier than thou progressive fanatics. Both get great pleasure from disdaining most of the people within their frame of reference. Both kinds wear their moral superiority, like battle metals.

Jayson2 says:

Rosa Parks, USA, 1955. Tanya Rosenblitz, Israel, 2011. The only difference being black against white in the US, and man against woman in Israel.
Seriously.. Who the he** do the fantasyland Israeli men think they are? Why do they feel they were put on this earth to surpress women & whomever else they feel like surpressing? They are nothing special, they are not Gods, they were not given, or handed, the right to laud one person over another through gender, so why do they continue to do so?

I don’t know about the world of the egotistical Israeli male, but in my world, you treat everyone with the same respect. No man, no woman, is more important than the other.

navak says:

Personally, I find it a relief to not have to squeeze by or sit by men.

Oh Come on. this is not the same as the freedom riders. These people chose voluntary segregation and you know what , good for them. I’d much prefer to know that my daughter was seated in the women’s section of the bus rather than alongside a man whose hands might wander to the wrong places. Do you know how many young girls have been touched by men on public transportation? I think we should cheer a community that takes an active stand against this instead of enlisting a bogus comparason to the Civil Rights movement.

    Gila says:

    An active stand against public sexual harrassment would be to convict the men doing it and putting them in jail where they belong. Punishing victims by removing them from the public sphere is not a response to be cheered. The only thing bogus about comparing Haredi discrimination against Jewish women in Israel to segregation in the American South is that the American South wasn’t founded to be the national homeland of and political safe haven for African Americans. So the Israeli version is actually that much more ridiculous.

mahatmacoatmabag says:

As a Jew, a Zionist, ex-IDF soldier, a Right wing Likud member, a tax paying hard working law abiding long time resident of Israel, I object to having the Ultra Religious on any Bus, let them walk ! . They disobey the Commandment ” six days shalt thou labor ……” they don’t even do one days work a week ! they are Parasites who neither work nor serve in the IDF & have their hand in my wallet, their religion is ” Schnorrerism not Judaism .
In 1948 the communist un-elected provisional PM David ben Gurion made two fundamental errors in the declaration of independence :- granting the Arab 5th column citizenship & allowing the ultra orthodox to avoid both military service & work !
No Work & No Military Service = No Vote, No welfare benefits !
Keep Israel Clean = No Ultra Orthodox on the buses !

    rocky2345 says:

    I think the proportional representation system was also a major mistake. It has given the religious parties far too much influence over government policies and a messed up welfare system, where so many adult men do not work.

      mahatmacoatmabag says:

      Rocky, good day to you. I personaly favour proportional representation over the 1st past the post system but with the provisio of safeguards. Regretably those safeguards are absent in Israel. For starters the theshhold for getting a seat is riddiculously low & should be set at between 7-10 % to prevent every clown with an agenda from running for office, secondly the failure of seperation of Religion& State is most pronounced in the Knesset where both Anti Israel Islamo-Fascist Arab parties & Anti Zionist Ultra Orthodox parties disrupt national life & thwart all attempts that do not suit their narrow constituencies agenda. We banned the exremist Kach party but failed to ban the Islamo-Fascist Arab parties, this to me is wrong – both need banning.

Amalia Singer says:

Thank you for this article, it really opened up my mind to what’s going on!

Great insight to such a sensative issue right now, especially with all the tension in Israel surrounding the Tal Law. It takes courage to write such an article, you did a great job!

rocky2345 says:

The Haredi are breeding much faster than the non-Haredi so the problems created by the non-religious in Israel will only get worse. Would a Haredi man even give up his seat at the front of the bus to an obviously pregnant woman? I guess as long as the US sends billions in “defense aid” to Israel every year, it frees up successive Israeli governments to spend lots of money on Haredi welfare and to pay the generous salaries of thousands of rabbis. When the US has its own financial crisis, maybe the foreign aid aid will stop and Haredi will be forced to get jobs.


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Israel’s Freedom Riders

On some Israeli buses, only men sit in the front. With the law on their side, some women are fighting back.

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