Women Get the Front Seat

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

The judges, moreover, declared the coming year a trial period. If, in that time, the Ministry finds it impossible to protect women who choose to sit in the front, it must close down these lines permanently.

The Israeli media, some of whom obviously hadn’t bothered to read the 30-page decision, were disappointed that the judges hadn’t outlawed these buses outright—something we had never asked for. But many who did read the decision hailed it unreservedly. Attorney Sharon Shenhav, director of the International Jewish Women’s Rights Project, called it “a major victory for women’s rights.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Beyond the practical relief, our wounded and humiliated spirits found healing balm in the beautiful words of the court’s decision, especially Judge Rubinstein’s liberal use of quotes from Jewish sources against those who disrespect women in the name of some “holier” mission. After quoting an excerpt from my affidavit describing my harassment, he wrote:

“Woe to the ears that hear such things! Where is the respect for human beings that overrides ‘even the prohibitions in the Torah?’” [Babylonian Talmud, Berachot 19]

He also related a story told by Rabbi Shmuel Greenfield in the book And His Leaves Did Not Wither, concerning Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, the greatest rabbinical authority in Israel of the past century:

“Once my cousin was sitting next to Rav Auerbach on a bus. A woman got on and there was no place for her to sit. The Rav turned to my cousin and asked: ‘Who is giving up his seat, you or me?’ My cousin got up and the woman sat down next to the Rav.”

What will the Court’s landmark decision mean in practice? We don’t yet know. The harassment may continue unabated, or it may stop completely. What do I hope it will mean? That all of those boarding public buses whose religious beliefs prohibit them from sitting next to the opposite gender can still choose not to, as long as a seat is available. If not, they can stand.

And for those like myself, I hope it means never having to worry about getting on a bus and accidentally sitting in a “hot seat” where I will be raked over the coals for being a woman, or for being uppity enough to sit in a place reserved solely for males because someone’s rebbe said so.

In the meantime, I plan to join IRAC’s Freedom Rider program, recruiting volunteers to disseminate information about passengers’ rights, to man a hotline for complaints and to ride the buses regularly to monitor compliance.
It has been a long ride, but the destination is worth it.


Naomi Ragen is a novelist and playwright. Her latest book, The Tenth Song, came out in October.

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