A couple of years ago I learned about a new front in the internal Israeli struggle over religious freedom: gender segregated buses. I was incensed. What century is this?
I have always felt that Israel has great potential to be a “light unto the nations,” inspired by our prophets of old. While the real Israel has many problems in realizing this vision, Israel’s story is still filled with many amazing accomplishments. I remain hopeful that Jewish values will ultimately prevail and the promise realized.
It had never occurred to me that the value of equality, which is so central to my Jewish life, could be rejected by an increasingly powerful and publicly present Ultra Orthodox Jewish minority in Israel. This just doesn’t feel right – this can’t be good for the Jews.
At the time I heard about this segregation I knew nothing about it. But I felt that I wanted to ride a segregated bus and sit in the forbidden (to women) front section. I stood outside the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem with my husband eyeing dozens of passing busses, trying to discern which were segregated – I couldn’t find one. Ok, I was being naïve, but in Jerusalem, where secular people are feeling increasingly squeezed out and sometimes harassed by the growing Ultra Orthodox population, emotions can run hot.
I later learned that the recently developing gender segregation problem is so extensive in some Ultra Orthodox neighborhoods that it spread to service at some bank branches, shops, and medical clinics, and even some streets. There is more – you can read about it on the website of the Israel Religious Action Center — IRAC, which is one of several groups studying this phenomenon and acting to reverse it. IRAC has collected many stories and letters from Ultra Orthodox women who do not feel safe to speak out in their own communities, but have turned to this legal arm of the Israel Reform Movement for help. Their testimonials are gripping.
I was happy to learn that the IRAC is now actively organizing “Freedom Rides,” named after the desegregation activism in the US in the 1960’s. I jumped at the chance to be a participant this summer. I learned why I didn’t see a segregated bus at the Central Bus Station in Jerusalem – they have operated only between Ultra Orthodox neighborhoods. But I also learned that, thanks to the legal actions of IRAC, a court order made bus segregation illegal. Compulsory bus signs explain that riders should only feel compelled to move if an elderly or disabled person or pregnant woman would need their seat.
The “Freedom Rides” are the next phase of the strategy, providing support and empowerment to the women who need it. As a result of these rides, IRAC has been able to take bus drivers to court when they do not enforce the open seating rule. With bus drivers facing steep fines, real change is now happening. Dozens of segregated bus lines used to travel in Jerusalem neighborhoods. Now only two remain (though other cities in Israel still have some segregated lines.)
Our group of visiting American rabbis and educators, accompanied by Israeli volunteers from IRAC, boarded the number 56 bus in Ramat Shlomo. I sat down in the front section in a grouping of 3 empty seats. We started at the first stop of the line during rush hour, and the drama took quite a while to build. A male colleague sat behind me and said, “I have your back.” While there hasn’t been violence on the IRAC “Freedom Rides,” I was still a bit worried as we started.
It was fine – thankfully nasty looks can’t kill. I got plenty of those! We desegregated that bus, all right. And by the end of the crowded ride, two Ultra Orthodox women had joined me in the adjacent two seats. We all had a memorable day.
In the week that has followed I have been reflecting on this experience and discussing it with colleagues studying with me at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. How do we forge a mutually respectful culture within Israel? It’s complicated. I hope to write more in about this in my next post. In the meantime, greetings of Shalom from Jerusalem!