Back in 2003 I took a bus from downtown Jerusalem to my home in the northern suburb of Ramot, a mixed secular and modern Orthodox neighborhood. One stop into the ride, a large, sweating haredi man hung over me threateningly, demanding that I move to the back of the bus. My astonished refusal was met with a fusillade of disgusting verbal abuse almost the entire ride.
Soon after, I described my experience in a Jerusalem Post article, including the disrespectful and dismissive response of the Egged bus company, which sent me a form letter insisting no such buses existed and that all seating on public buses was “voluntary.” I called it “Egged and the Taliban.”
From then on, I took taxis. Fortunately, about four years later, I received an e-mail from Orly Erez-Likhovski, an attorney with Israel Religious Action Center of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, who asked if I would be willing to join a lawsuit against the Ministry of Transportation, as well as Egged and Dan, the bus companies which legally monopolize all public transportation in Israel and which are highly subsidized by taxpayers.
Sex-segregated buses in Israel began in the 1990s when the Ministry of Transportation agreed to allow ultra-Orthodox in Bnei Brak to sex-segregate several lines in their municipality. This consisted of opening both front and back doors and forcing women to board, sit and exit only at the back. Thus, a woman would have to stand the entire ride even if empty seats were available at the front. Women bold enough to take those empty seats would find themselves barraged, as I was, with intimidating denunciations by the men, including the driver. Hardly a “voluntary” system.
While Israelis were busy with the Intifada and wars, extremist religious machers quietly expanded their hegemony over hundreds of bus lines and millions of unsuspecting passengers. By the time we filed our lawsuit on January 24, 2007, these lines—unmarked and unregulated—were all over the country. The only direct route from Ashdod to Arad was on a sex-segregated bus. The alternative was to change buses twice, paying 60 NIS instead of 24 NIS and riding four hours instead of two. This was, and is, also true of Ashdod to Safed, Jerusalem to Petach Tikva and many other routes.
Like me, the four other plaintiffs, all religious, had their own horror stories. One young woman wearing (gasp!) slacks had been threatened with ejection from a bus in the middle of the night by haredi male passengers empowered by a like-thinking bus driver. Chana Pasternak, the head of Kolech, the largest Orthodox women’s organization in Israel, was humiliated and verbally abused by a haredi man young enough to be her son. In addition to the formal plaintiffs, there was Miriam Shear, a Canadian grandmother on her way to the Western Wall on a non sex-segregated bus, who was thrown to the floor, had her head covering ripped off and was physically beaten for refusing to sit in the back.