Sisterhood Blog

Court: Israeli Women To the Back of the Bus … on a Voluntary Basis

By Allison Kaplan Sommer

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Is there such a thing as “voluntary segregation”? Apparently, the Israeli Supreme Court thinks so, according to its disappointing ruling today regarding the ongoing controversy on gender-segregated bus lines in the ultra-Orthodox community. (Previous Sisterhood posts on bus segregation can be found here, here, here, and here.)

The bad news for women’s advocacy groups and others unhappy with females being relegated to the back of the bus is that the segregated lines were not banned completely.

Instead, the Court, while acknowledging that state enforcement of segregation is illegal and speaking out strongly against it, upheld the Transportation Ministry’s official policy in which “everyone may sit wherever they want on the bus, even in “mehadrin” lines, and drivers must work to prevent passengers from being forced, through violence and other means, to sit elsewhere. However, should passengers decide to voluntarily sit according to gender, it will be permissible.”

The court ordered the Ministry to investigate “every claim of violence or coercion of any kind and fulfill the necessary supervision according to instructions.”

All I can say is: Good luck with that. One can’t help but worry about the reactions that women will encounter when they exercise their legal right to choose to ride in the front of such buses. It is hard to believe that the verbal and physical violence that has resulted from such situations in the past will miraculously evaporate as a result of a court ruling.

A clear-cut ruling would have been healthier. Obviously, the best decision would have been to eliminate such buses completely, but even the polar opposite — declaring the buses are kosher and telling those who object to wait and ride the next bus — would have settled the issue. The current decision is a recipe for more conflict: The haredim will interpret it as a stamp of approval on the ‘mehadrin’ buses, while many women will view it as an invitation to head for the front sets.

At least Justice Elyakim Rubinstein’s words were encouraging. He wrote in his decision that: “A public transportation operator, like any other person, does not have the right to order, request or tell women where they may sit simply because they are women. They must sit wherever they like. … As I now read over these lines emphasizing this I am astounded that there was even a need to write them. … Have the days of Rosa Parks, the African-American woman who collapsed the racist segregation on an Alabama bus in 1955, returned?”

And yet, the wishy-washy nature of the Court’s decision means continued trouble for those, who like Rosa Parks, simply refuse to accept riding in the back of the bus.


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