By Sarah Breger
Last week’s news of Nofrat Frenkel‘s arrest for wearing a Taalit at the Western Wall caused outrage among those concerned (and frustrated by) the relationship between religion and law in Israel.
Yet there is another more troubling issue that will be decided at the end of the month. On December 27th, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz of Likud must decide whether or not he will uphold his committee’s recommendation to get rid of gender-segregated bus lines in Israel.
The first gender-segregated, or as they are called in Israel, mehadrin lines (after a strict kosher supervision category) were introduced in 1977, and their numbers have been increasing ever since. On these buses, which run through ultra-religious neighborhoods in Jerusalem or Bnei Brak, women board from the rear entrance and are not allowed to enter if they are wearing immodest clothing. While no one is technically prohibited from boarding, the haredi riders take it upon themselves to enforce these rules — which they do with aplomb. Many riders also extended these “rules” to other buses they think should be segregated as well.
Women who refused to play by these rules and have chosen to sit in front have been verbally and in some cases physically harassed. One famous case, involving an American Orthodox Jewish woman who was slapped, kicked and punched by a group of men for not sitting in the back of the bus gained widespread media attention.
Moment columnist and Orthodox writer Naomi Ragen also received insults and threats for refusing to give up her seat in the front. She, along with the Israel Religious Action Center of the Progressive (Reform) Movement petitioned Israel’s High Court to force Egged and that the Transportation Ministry to stop these mehdarin bus lines.
They found that even if the segregation was supposed to be on a voluntary basis, in reality this was not the case and “this, in turn, led to attempts on their part to force these arrangements on passengers who did not agree to them. The voluntary dimension of the arrangement was not given expression and…is not even known to a substantial portion of the haredi population that uses these buses.”
However the man with the final say is Katz. The New Israel Fund is holding a campaign to contact Katz and encourage him to reject public buses with segregated seating. But it might not matter. There is a fear among women’s and human rights groups that Katz will kowtow to the religious parties who make up the current government coalition.
If this happens, it will add to the increasing anger towards Israel’s ultra orthodox population. Whether it is the case of marriage, divorce or kashrut, the gap between haredim and the rest of Israeli society is growing larger and larger. Whether it is possible to bridge this gap is unclear, but for now it is unfortunate that women will once again become victims of a religious and political power play.