Women Get the Front Seat

By | Dec 05, 2011
2011 March-April, Israel

Israel’s High Court agreed that gender separation on Israeli public buses violated the principles of equality,
individual rights and freedom of religion.


In 2004, I embarked on what I thought was going to be a simple 30-minute bus ride from the center of Jerusalem to my home in Ramot. Instead, it became a dramatic seven-year journey sparked by a humiliating and threatening verbal battering from an ultra-Orthodox man after I adamantly rejected his unreasonable demands to give up my seat and move to the back of the bus. I am happy to relate that the ordeal ended in triumph in Israel’s Supreme Court this January. But it was a bumpy ride, traversing along the way some of the most urgent women’s rights issues in Israel today.

In 2007, I became one of five Orthodox women who filed suit in Israel’s Supreme Court against the Ministry of Transportation, Egged and Dan—the public transportation monopolies—for violating our civil rights by caving into ultra-Orthodox demands to run mehadrin or “extra-kosher” lines that forced women to board and sit in the back of the bus and follow a dress code devised by haredi “modesty patrols.” We argued that as a result, certain public buses had become sexually charged battlefields in which women were verbally or physically battered into compliance.

With the invaluable help and guidance of lawyers at the Reform Movement’s Center for Jewish Pluralism and the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), we five plaintiffs went to court on January 14, 2008. Trying to show sensitivity, we asked only that such buses be clearly marked and rules of behavior established, and that each sex-segregated line have a parallel line to serve the general public.

Among the judges who heard our case were kippah-wearing judge Elyakim Rubinstein, Arab-Israeli judge Salim Joubran and secular judge Yoram Danziger. The court ordered the Ministry of Transportation to appoint a committee to study the matter. On October 26, 2009, this committee issued recommendations that brought us joy: “Our stand is that every bus passenger be allowed to sit anywhere there is a vacant seat…and that no public buses be designated as sex-segregated.”

But our celebration was premature. Surprisingly, or perhaps not, Likud Minister of Transportation Yisrael Katz, happily in bed with his haredi coalition partners, refused to accept his own committee’s findings. Instead, he offered the court a “compromise”: To put up signs on public buses telling men to sit in the front and women in the back “voluntarily.”

We awaited the court’s decision anxiously: Accepting this “compromise” would open the door to widespread gender apartheid. On January 5, 2011, we finally got the answer for which we had waited so long. The Supreme Court adopted the committee’s original recommendations in full. The court agreed in principle that gender separation on select Israeli public buses violated the principles of equality, individual rights and freedom of religion and conscience. It ordered all formerly segregated bus lines to carry signs informing passengers that they may sit where they please and warning that harassment is a criminal offense. Drivers must be trained to implement the decision, and the Minister of Transportation must oversee and monitor its enforcement and publicize the new rules in haredi newspapers.

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