Israel needs America – financially, diplomatically, and militarily. It’s a fact. So when U.S. Secretary of State Hilary Clinton makes an observation, even about a relatively minor point of domestic policy, Israelis tend to sit up and listen.
That is not to say that the point in contention is minor to everyone. Secretary Clinton, speaking at a foreign policy forum in Washington, DC, drew attention to the gender segregation of buses in Israel, using it as part of a broader point about constraints on democracy in the Jewish State. She drew on several recent local controversies such as the walkout of several religious soldiers from a female vocalist’s performance and a new law banning foreign-government funding of NGOs. Her exact words were not disclosed, but an internal source leaked an alleged comparison between Israel and Iran…and a million headlines wrote themselves.
The Israeli government was quick to respond that the criticism was “completely exaggerated.”
Mrs Clinton’s comment came at a particularly sensitive time, as the issue of separate buses has been making major waves in Israel. The phenomenon began toward the end of the 1990s as haredi (ultra-orthodox) communities expanded, leading to increased demand from that community for public transportation options. For many haredim, a private vehicle is prohibitively expensive. Bus operating companies decided to cater to the community’s acute sense of tzniut (modesty) by introducing ‘voluntary’ separate bus lines – with women sitting (and often alighting) in the back half of the bus and men in the front.
The situation remained as such until a class action lawsuit, filed by a number of claimants, including Orthodox American-Israeli novelist and activist Naomi Ragen, who argued that the separate buses were a violation of human rights. Originally, the case was rejected on the grounds that the segregation was purely voluntary and that each individual passenger was allowed to sit wherever he or she chose. Ragen tells a different story.
In an in-depth account on her personal website, the author claims she was “insulted, humiliated and physically threatened” when she opted not to sit in the back of a public bus in a haredi neighborhood. Showing, in her own words, a “Martin Luther King-like outrage,” she faced down a belligerent passenger who demanded she evacuate her seat on a mostly empty bus. After having complained to the company’s customer service department, her next reaction was to begin the class action lawsuit together with the Centre for Jewish Pluralism – an NGO affiliated with the Israel Reform Movement. While conceding that no actual laws were broken, they demanded that the so-called ‘mehadrin’ (very kosher) buses be clearly marked and that non-separated buses be made available on all routes at the same prices – potentially a severe economic obstacle for the heavily subsidised bus companies.
In January, Israel’s Supreme Court (informally known as the ‘Bagatz’) ruled in favour of the claimants, and gave a one-year trial period in which to experiment with a compromise solution. The religious community was asked to respect the rights of other passengers to sit wherever they chose and stickers (right) were fixed inside municipal buses saying “Every passenger may sit wherever he/she chooses…harassment of a passenger in this regard may be a criminal act.” As the court-ordered deadline looms, tension has mounted with claims that the co-operation from the ultra-orthodox has been less than satisfactory.
In this tinderbox, the Secretary of State’s comments were the spark that turned it into an inferno. After defending Israel’s democracy, Knesset members grabbed the opportunity to make a point about the segregation.
“The matter of excluding and segregating women is completely unacceptable and needs to be put to a stop,” said Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz of Likud. Several other members of Knesset also expressed the need to take steps to ensure the equality of men and women in Israel.
Meanwhile, in the ultra-Orthodox Meah She’arim neighborhood of Jerusalem, an estimated one hundred protesters gathered to block off a bus’s entry, allegedly throwing stones and injuring a police officer. Pictures showed children in strollers and other obstacles being thrown in the way of the bus.
Ragen herself is an Orthodox Jew, but she feels that the gender separation is not required by halacha (Jewish law). The widely accepted Rabbi Moshe Feinstein ruled that religious subway riders did not need to sit away from women, and presumably the same would apply to buses. The demands for separate public transport are a more recent phenomenon, and as with many heated issues, it is unclear as to just what the most venerated rabbis of today hold. Conflicting reports swirled about Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv, a renowned Jerusalem posek (religious judge), as he reportedly first allowed the bus arrangement, before retracting his ruling. Separate seating, he is alleged to hold, is preferable but cannot be enforced.
Mrs Clinton has a history of curious statements to the press; she recently stated than al-Jazeera was the only station in America broadcasting “real news” and that an aside made in a private forum should not cause too much concern. Still, there is reason to be wary. After all, even if the claims that women voluntarily choose to sit at the back of the bus are true – that may be more worrying than their being coerced.