I’ve been ploughing my way through the recent Supreme Court decision regarding segregated buses.
Yes, for those of you who haven’t been following this, Israel does have segregated buses, but not for people of colour and white guys, and not for Jews and Arabs, but buses in which the females sit in the back and the men in the front. The practice began a few years ago in certain “ultra-orthodox” neighborhoods and on lines from Jerusalem to places like Bnei Brak, Beitar Ilit and even Tsfat. The legality of the practice was challenged – led by Jerusalem resident and acclaimed author Naomi Ragen – in the Supreme Court; a committee was convened to examine the phenomenon and submit recommendations, and the final decision was handed down just a couple of weeks ago.
I actually have a funny story about separate buses; one afternoon I got on a bus coming back from the Kotel, the Western Wall, on which there was a group of women visiting from a Chabad community in the United States. A rather obnoxious man on the bus tried to tell us that it was a separate bus, which it wasn’t, using the term “mehadrin” bus. (Mehadrin, in Jewish legal literature means beautified, or enhanced but has evolved, or perhaps devolved, to mean colloquially something super-kosher.) One of the women turned to the man and in her broken, highly-accented Hebrew said: “If it were mehadrin, you would be sitting in the back, and I would sit in the front. So just leave us alone.”
That about sums it up.
The Supreme Court, in their decision, discussed the various rights and interests at play here. On one hand, obviously, the right to equality and freedom from discrimination. On the other hand, proponents of the arrangement said that it reflected a genuine, religious value of certain segments of the population, and therefore should be protected. This too was a claim the Supreme Court took seriously.
I can understand the argument of religious freedoms with regard to certain issues, and in fact disagreed with sociologist acquaintance in France who is very much in favour of the burkha ban. I felt that the ban was an infringement of personal freedoms and people should be at liberty to dress the way they choose.
However, the buses are a different matter. First, because the separation took place on both private and public lines. Second, for decades, anyone riding a bus in certain areas of Israel is aware of a kind of unspoken code; you pretty much know who is uncomfortable sitting beside a member of the opposite sex. My impression has always been that people are accommodating and generally don’t just sit beside someone who might be uncomfortable with someone of the opposite sex sitting beside them. In any case, for those who are interested, there is a long halachic response to the issue of mingling on subways written by Rav Moshe Feinstein זצ”ל in which he ruled that there is no prohibition.
Third, you really have to wonder. To separate men and women on buses in ultra-orthodox neighborhoods or on lines between such communities in order to prevent sexual harassment, as some defenders of the arrangement want to claim, seems disingenuous. So too is the claim that the men need protection from the alluring women. Disengenous and just not very Jewish.
Jewish views of modesty are not about objectification and burying oneself under a burlap sack. I’m not going to expand on this, but anyone interested can take a look at Gila Manolson’s very good book on the subject, Outside-Inside.
These buses also proscribed immodest dress, and one woman submitted an affidavit to the court in which she described an extremely uncomfortable situation on a bus, because her skirt was slightly above her knee. You have to wonder how modest it is to be male assessing the hemlines on the bus.
Finally, to paraphrase the Chabad lady on the bus, what’s with the sitting specifically in the back business? If, in the midst of the public controversy and deliberations over this issue someone would have come along and said, you know what, it’s the men who are going to sit in the back and the women will sit up front, the claims that this was a ‘’religious” issue, and not a move to keep women down, might have been taken just a little more seriously.
Beyond all of this however, I think there is a larger problem at play, one that affects all segments of society, observant or not, and that is the problem of diminishing personal responsibility. Meaning, why is it that we need someone from outside to enable us to behave in a manner reflecting Jewish values of modest?. Do we really require an artificial mechanism such as physical separation on a bus to ensure that our way of life remains intact? If so, that is a pretty poor statement on any internal spiritual, emotional and personal growth that our living with Torah is meant to bring.
The Supreme Court decision of course forbids imposed segregation, and says that any gender-separation on public transportation must be voluntary. The question of course is, what does voluntary mean? Is the practice, now going on for something like seven years, so ingrained among certain individuals, that the majority of the consumers of these lines won’t be able to buck to social pressure? The judges deliberated about whether to forbid bus-drivers to open the back door when picking up passengers, thereby creating a situation where women must alight at the front of the bus. Ultimately, they decided to allow drivers to open both doors, thereby allowing passengers freedom of choice, but have given this a probation period of a year, to see if the discrimination stops.
Hard to know where this will go; at least a statement has been made. I suspect that the practice will continue, to the detriment of women, Israel, and dare I say it, healthy Jewish life.