Every day sex-segregated buses for Hasidim roll right past my corner, ferrying people between Williamsburg and Boro Park. It never occurred to me to write about it.
I’ve been writing and editing lots of Sisterhood stories about the sex segregation problems in Jerusalem and its environs, but I assumed that the bus line that I see six days a week (not on Shabbos or holidays of course, when we often see men in shtreimels and frock coats making the trek by foot) was private. It is painted different colors, has a different kind of bus-route display on its front, the long windows on the side are tinted dark gray so you can’t see in, and the buses are festooned with Yiddish ads for everything from kosher vitamins to holy books.
Why on earth would it have anything to do with the New York City public transit system?
Well apparently it does, and the “discovery” of this bus route has been getting lots of recent press, in a New York Time story and the Columbia University Journalism School publication The New York World, which broke the story.
That story says:
The B110 bus travels between Williamsburg and Borough Park in Brooklyn. It is open to the public, and has a route number and tall blue bus stop signs like any other city bus. But the B110 operates according to its own distinct rules. The bus line is run by a private company and serves the Hasidic communities of the two neighborhoods. To avoid physical contact between members of opposite sexes that is prohibited by Hasidic tradition, men sit in the front of the bus and women sit in the back.
According to The Times story:
Even though a private operator runs the bus, it was awarded the route through a public and competitive bidding process. Seth Solomonow, a spokesman for the Transportation Department, said the bus was supposed to be “available for public use” and could not discriminate.
The Columbia J-School story says:
City, state and federal law all proscribe discrimination based on gender in public accommodations. “Discrimination in employment, housing and public accommodations in New York City is against the law,” said Betsy Herzog, a spokeswoman for the New York City Commission on Human Rights, which investigates and prosecutes alleged violations of anti-discrimination law.
The Department of Transportation, which issues the franchise, confirms that it understands the B110 to be subject to anti-discrimination laws. “This is a private company, but it is a public service,” said Seth Solomonow, a spokesman for the DOT. “The company has to comply with all applicable laws.”
Why should the Hasidic community, or any particular community for that matter, be able to obtain a franchise to run a quasi-public service?
If they want to live according to a totally separate set of rules then let them provide their own, totally private bus lines. I wouldn’t want to ride a bus where I was required to sit in the back, but if they want to live this way, then they have every right to – in their own private spaces, like in synagogues and homes.
They have no right to run afoul of anti-discrimination laws if they receive any sort of public funding or accommodation.
The Columbia story said:
Following the New York World’s inquiry, Solomonow said DOT would contact Private Transportation Corporation. “We are reaching out to the company about this alleged incident to ask for its response, with the expectation that it will take steps to prevent the occurrence of incidents of this nature,” he said.
Good luck with that. Though no community is more adept at making use of public funds than Haredi communities are, they are still more likely to give up whatever public money they receive for the operation of this bus line than they are to allow men and women to sit side-by-side on busses.
After all, as one man interviewed in The New York World said, “If God makes a rule, you don’t ask ‘Why make the rule?”
Fortunately, most of us don’t believe that God made a rule that women are required to sit in the back of buses. And now, according to a new New York World story, the New York City Commission on Human Rights is investigating. The commission’s tag line is “Discrimination is illegal in New York City.”
And that applies to everyone, even those who believe that being religious means behaving as if women deserve to sit at the back of the bus.