I am writing from Jerusalem where I am on a study tour with 23 women from the National Council of Jewish Women. We are here visiting some of the organizations we fund through our Israel Granting Program and also are meeting with a variety of people to get updates on the social, political, and economic issues facing the modern State of Israel. One issue I never quite thought I would experience in 2011 is bus segregation. No, I am not referring to blacks and whites because, after all, this is not 1960 in Mississippi. I am referring to gender segregation of men and women on buses with routes originating from the predominately Orthodox neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo in Jerusalem. Today, we rode the buses to experience firsthand what it is like to be a woman and assume you must “go to the back of the bus” when you board bus #56 or #40.
This now illegal activity started in 1997 when public transport companies began to operate special bus lines for the Haredi public, starting with two lines in Jerusalem and Bnei Barak. Called “Mehadrin” (extra kosher) lines, women would board the bus through the rear door and men would board through the front door. Women who objected to these rules would be subjected to harassment and intimidation and, in some cases, physical violence. The Israel Reform Action Center (IRAC) began to take action on this subject in 2001 and NCJW followed soon after. During a hearing on the case in January 2008, the Israeli Supreme Court criticized the manner in which gender segregation was being carried out on the buses and instructed the Ministry of Transportation to appoint a committee to study the matter. The Committee submitted its conclusions in October 2009 and found that bus routes applying gender segregation were unlawful given existing laws of the State of Israel; however, “segregation” was not defined and no enforcement mechanisms were put in place. The court has since ruled that signs must be placed in buses stating: “Due to Supreme Court ruling 47607 people can sit anywhere they want on the bus.”
So on November 3, 2011, we decided to accompany Anat Hoffman of IRAC and take a “freedom ride.” It made perfect sense for us to do this on our first day in Israel, for as Anat pointed out, “NCJW has been next to the cradle of every failed or successful feminist effort in Israel.” And here we were again, riding the buses in the front and taking action.
So, what did we find? Well, on the bus that I was on there was no sign and the women who boarded walked to the back even though we had left lots of seats for them in front. The men who boarded had no idea what to do and gave us very dirty looks. Most chose to stand or occupy a seat where none of us were sitting. One woman commented to one of our Hebrew-speaking members: “You should be ashamed of yourselves. Why don’t you take care of your own prostitutes and drugs and do not worry about us.” Others seemed to feel empowered by our presence and took seats in the front of the bus and asked why were we there!
I, for one, was proud to ride the bus (in the front seat) and to feel like I was helping Israeli women take their rightful place at the front of the bus or anywhere they choose to sit!
-Nancy K. Kaufman, CEO of the National Council of Jewish Women (www.ncjw.org).