Israel takes wrong turn with bus segregation

BY LARRY LEVIN

How would you feel if you had picked up a newspaper in 2007 and read this account: Five assailants believed to be white supremacists assaulted a black woman and a U.S. Army soldier Sunday for sitting next to each other on a bus bound for Birmingham, Ala.

The incident began when the five men asked the woman to move to the back of the bus to prevent males and females from sitting together in public. When she refused, they beat her and the male soldier who sat next to her.

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Police forces that arrived at the scene to arrest the men were attacked by dozens of alleged white supremacists who punctured the tires of their vehicles, allowing the assailants to escape. No one was hurt in the incident.

Does the fact that this incident occurred in 2007 offend you? It certainly more than offends me. Given the sacrifices and suffering of Rosa Parks and those who came after her, our laws now outlaw shameful segregation practices.

But actually, the assault above didn’t occur in the United States — I’ve changed the location for dramatic effect. Guess where it did occur?

Israel.

Shocking, eh? The report above is modified from an October, 2007 article in Ha’aretz, the Israeli daily newspaper. In the original story, the white supremacists were actually ultra-Orthodox Jews, or Haredi; the soldier was a member of the Israel Defense Forces.

This is not an isolated event, either. Both before and after that incident, there have been others in which Israeli women have been both verbally and physically assaulted for their refusal to relocate to the rear of a bus.

A number of bus lines in Israel (over 50, actually) are set up to accommodate the ultra-Orthodox, who believe that segregation on public transport is appropriate under Jewish law (this position is of course refuted by many). There are several dozen routes that have signs requesting that women sit separately from men.

The High Court in Israel has expressed substantial concern about this practice, and a couple of years ago asked the Transportation Ministry to have a committee look into potential changes to the process. The committee rejected the heinous segregation practices.

But despite the committee’s recommendation, Israel’s Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, in an embarrassing act of political pandering, not only affirmed his support for the voluntary system, but indicated there was no significant evidence of abusive practices. He indicated that the signs on busses explaining the “voluntary” practice were appropriate. It is expected that the High Court will be reviewing the minister’s response in the near future.

Nancy Ratzan, President of the National Council of Jewish Women, wrote an excellent column recently about the bus issue and other practices in Israel that result in women being treated as second-class citizens. Among the examples she cited — a woman being arrested for wearing a prayer shawl and praying from the Torah at the Wall; and the doctoring of photos in some Israeli newspapers, editing out pictures of female Cabinet members. Her piece can be found at www.ncjw.org.

I understand and support the right of any Jewish or other religious group to adhere to its practices on private property (home, shul, etc.), as long as those practices are lawful, are not physically or emotionally abusive, and anyone who wishes to opt out has the right to do so. In other words, no lawbreaking, no violence, no coercion.

But when public practices that apply to society as a whole give way to private religious beliefs, they often favor one group and discriminate against another (see: The Establishment Clause of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution). In this case, efforts to “accommodate” the Haredi practice have resulted in direct harm to women riding the buses. There not only is shame associated with being forced to sit in the rear, but there’s also been vigilante behavior by some when women refuse to do so.

Some critics correctly assert that in defending itself and its people, Israel is often held to an impossibly high standard. That is a reasonable contention, but it has zero applicability in this case. Here all that’s being suggested is that the Israeli government step up to the plate and declare that women — who proudly serve in the IDF, who contribute on par with men at every level of Israeli society — be given the equal legal rights that dignity and respect command.

The bus practice is particularly troubling when you consider that Haredi authorities have created exceptions for themselves when segregated travel isn’t possible. For instance, when flying on airplanes between Israel and the U.S., they sit among other passengers. Some utilize mehitzas, devices that create privacy at their seats and preclude viewing of in-flight video, and though that might seem extreme to some, it at least creates the desired effect without infringement on others’ rights.

That is, however, a far cry from forcing or strongly encouraging women to sit in the back of the bus. In an era of radical Islamists trying to pulverize our world back to the 11th century, the practices employed on these buses only serve to reinforce the lawless notion that any religious sect can do what it wants, when it wants, in the name of G-d. That is not a philosophy to which I ascribe, nor one which is generally accepted in most civilized nations. Israelis should expect more of their leaders when it comes to such basic human rights.

Larry Levin is Publisher/CEO of the Jewish Light.