Well, actually, not so much.
There have been a few well-publicized cases of women being harassed or attacked on Jerusalem buses in the past few years. Now author Naomi Ragen and a few other women, tired of seeing Jim Crow rules play themselves out in Israel are taking their case to the Supreme Court.
The state argues that the segregation - with men sitting in front and women in back - is voluntary and that the companies operating the mehadrin lines "are prohibited from forcing the voluntary arrangement on the rest of the passengers who are not interested in it.
"There is no reason for the Transportation Ministry to get involved, as long as each person maintains a right to use those lines without being coerced by these arrangements," the state said. "A suitable arrangement is based on the assumption that there should not be a coerced segregation arrangement in public transit, but there is no obstacle to allowing the passengers to have voluntary separation between the sexes."
I feel (almost) conflicted. There is a legitimate point to be made that these buses are pre-designated as "Mehadrin," or gender-separated, and that it's not like this is happening on every bus. So the very fact of the buses existing may not be the actual problem as much as the really crappy attitudes that are occurring in conjunction with these bus lines when women don't follow the rules (the Israeli Reform movement, all five of them, disagree). Also, as Orthomom said back in 2006, if you're actually doing your job as a Haredi man and using your spare time for studying, it shouldn't make much of a difference if a woman is sitting next to you or across from you.
Incidentally, I've seen buses in New York that have women and men sitting ACROSS from each other throughout the whole length of the bus, using a curtain to keep things separate. It seems that part of this is also a desire from certain groups of Haredim to keep things as rigid, inflexible, and generally unpleasant, as they can possibly be. It's one thing to have a socially repressive (or, to be polite, "highly regulated") society, it's another thing to impose it on other folks, ESPECIALLY with the threat of violence. Gil Student put it quite well:
The problem with the arrangement in Israel is simply that the community there is incapable of controlling its hooligans. This should come as no surprise and has been a growing problem for decades.
Damn skippy. Gil also does a good job of demonstrating how the more attention this issue gets, the more ridiculous the whole thing starts to look to outside observers- especially when Orthodox women try to defend the practice as "empowering." Yeah, empowering the same way the May Laws were.
Still, some people are not convinced that Ragen and co's hearts are actually in the right place.
Reform Jews do not consider themselves bound by Torah mandates such as those relating to separation of the genders, but there are many observant Jews who have difficulty with these issues as well. Many, however, feel more comfortable in such an environment.
“There are lines all over the country, traveling to the same places, in which anyone can sit anywhere they like,” one regular rider on the mehadrin line told IsraelNationalNews. “There is no reason for a woman to sit in a men’s section on a bus clearly intended to cater to those who observe Torah law,” he said, “other than for the purpose of deliberate provocation."
The rider, who requested anonymity, likened the situation to that of a woman insisting on using the men’s public restroom. “It’s not illegal for a woman to force her way into a men’s bathroom,” he said. “But it would be unusual and bad-mannered, to say the least.”
The state argues that the seating arrangement is voluntary and that the bus operators do not force passengers to sit in any particular area, but that the restrictions are set by the community served by the line.
The standard Israeli public bus system, in which there is no gender separation on the buses, includes routes traveling to every destination served by the “mehadrin” line.
The separate, “mehadrin” system was created in 2001 in response to a growing demand by hareidi religious Jews for a bus line that would enable men and women to travel separately without being forced into uncomfortably close proximity, especially on crowded buses.
The “mehadrin” line provides for separate seating and offers direct bus service between cities with large hareidi religious populations.
Hmm. Sort of makes me think back to the old question of whether Jerusalem (or the buses going to and from it) should belong to all Jews or just the religious. Let's just hope they don't take their cues from the Klausenberger rebbe on this one.
Edit: Well that's a little surprising.
Suspicious haredi leaders and activists were pleasantly surprised to discover Monday that the Supreme Court can be an ally and that liberal, democratic values such as human rights and freedom of religious expression can sometimes serve haredi interests.
"Today the Supreme Court gave legitimacy to our claims and backed them up with values such as human dignity," said Shlomo Rosenstein, a member of the Jerusalem Municipality and Transportation Coordinator for the Haredi Public in the capital.
Yeah. Maybe next year they'll support your freedom of speech as applied through bleach-spraying.
On Monday, a panel of judges chaired by the modern Orthodox Elyakim Rubinstein seemed to show empathy and understanding for the haredi community's desire to strictly separate the sexes on public buses, according to haredim who were present at the discussions.
"The questions they asked and their comments seemed to show that they understood our needs and sensibilities," said a haredi PR man who works with one of the large bus companies that runs "Mehadrin" lines that seat men at the front and women at the back.
"The judges failed to understand what Naomi Ragen was so upset about. Why should a woman care if she sits in the front of the bus or in the back of the bus?" asked rhetorically the anonymous PR man.
Isn't that sort of like the all-white court deciding that "separate but equal" was a perfectly fine legal precedent? Maybe the court needs some women on it.
The first major development in haredi influence was the community's discovery of its buying power. As the haredi population grew they became aware of their formidable consumer buying power.
They could put pressure on the cellular phone operators to offer handsets that do not have Internet access, SMS or access to other services that offend haredi sensibilities.
They could demand that supermarkets carry products with more stringent kosher supervision. They could put pressure on El Al, the national carrier, to stop flying on Shabbat and they could demand that building contractors build haredi-only neighborhoods.
Now, haredim may have entered a new stage of influence: using the Supreme Court, that bastion of liberalism and equality, to support haredi religious freedoms as long as they do not hurt the freedom of others too much.
Ow. My poor head.