Again and again, our case was postponed. Finally on March 8, 2008, the Supreme Court asked the Ministry of Transportation to appoint a committee to study the issue and come up with recommendations. On December 8, 2008, my fellow petitioners and I received a sympathetic hearing. The committee’s request for public feedback resulted in thousands of replies, the majority against sex segregation. But many also wrote supporting such buses, the result of a haredi men’s campaign to fight against our lawsuit. This is not to say there weren’t haredi women sincerely supportive of sex-segregation on buses. Some told me that they have been victims of sexual harassment by haredi men on non-segregated buses. But even they see the dangers: First the buses, then the streets, offices, shopping malls, planes, trains….This is not wild imagination. There are already streets in Jerusalem in Geulah and Mea Shearim marked “men” or “women.” National insurance offices in Ramat Beit Shemesh have separate hours for men and women. And demands to sex-segregate El Al planes have been voiced. Where does it end?
A frustrating year and a half behind schedule, on October 26, 2009, the committee issued its report and recommendations. But Minister of Transportation Yisrael Katz (Likud), decided not to submit the recommendations to the Court “until he had a chance to study them.”
We, however, did sneak a peek. To our joy, the report said plainly that enforcing sex-segregated buses was a violation of Israel’s democratic values and that no government office should be involved in such segregation. In the months that followed, however, Minister Katz, under pressure from haredi politicians, refused to stand behind his own committee’s recommendations. Instead, he asked the Court to approve the exact opposite: sex-segregated buses which were “voluntary,” echoing the Egged spokesman who had so infuriated me years before. What Katz envisioned were bus signs asking passengers to sit separately but indicating it was not mandatory. He further suggested that there be a “trial period” in which this “voluntary” system would be implemented, to ascertain if violence could be avoided.
The justices were unimpressed. They asked Katz to show why his committee’s recommendations should not be fully implemented immediately, and the sex-segregated buses cancelled altogether. By now, Minister Katz has long passed his legal deadline to respond. And so, we have filed yet again a demand that he do so.
We await the minister’s belated response or, lacking that, finally, after so many years, a courageous decision on the part of our Supreme Court, to guard the democratic rights of all Israel’s citizens from the constant, dangerous erosion fueled by religious fanaticism coupled with political expediency: a decision that will allow us all to finally take our seats.
Naomi Ragen is a novelist and playwright. Her latest book, The Tenth Song, will be out in October.