Dr. Hanna Kehat’s mother did not ride her local bus for three years. The 78-year-old lifelong resident of the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood Mea Shearim lost her bus because Haredi extremists would stone the bus every time it rode down her street. So Egged simply stopped the route, forcing her and many of her car-less neighbors to walk distances to find a different bus.
“Women in her community are being completely neglected – they are at the mercy of the sikrikim,” Kehat told The Sisterhood, referring to one of Israel’s the most extreme ultra-Orthodox sects.
Today, however, the bus has returned to its route, thanks to one change: Police intervention.
The question about what role the government plays in protecting Israeli citizens from Haredi violence came to the fore last week, when the Interministerial Committee to Prevent the Exclusion of Women, headed by Minister of Sport and Culture Limor Livnat, released its findings. Among the most controversial conclusions of its three-month long investigation is the committee’s recommendation to support a 2011 High Court ruling that deems gender segregation on public transport a matter of “choice.”
Although the committee also recommended a hotline for complaints, writing clear guidelines for bus drivers and putting immovable signs on buses reminding passengers that they have the right to sit wherever they want, many anticipated that the committee would find a way to declare segregation in buses illegal.
Kehat, the founder of the Orthodox women’s group Kolech points out that the issue of Haredi women’s choice remains dubious. “Kolech receives all the complaints of Haredi women who cannot complain in public,” she said that women who speak out risk being ostracized from their communities.
“To talk about the community choosing means the men are choosing,” Kehat said, who said she was saddened that Livnat adopted this language.
The one major change since the High Court ruling is that the police and Transport Ministry are paying more attention to the issue. There are currently more than 50 segregated bus lines operating in 28 cities across Israel. Since the High Court ruling, the Transport Ministry has been conducting periodic checks on these lines. Out of 1,150 checks in which the official purposely sat in the “wrong” part of the bus, in 56 instances the official was asked to move, including 15 instances in which the official felt personally threatened by other passengers.
Police Lieutenant Niso Shoham, Commander of the Jerusalem District commented on the report, “Let’s not delude ourselves into thinking that everything is good and quiet. The report does not reflect the enormity of this terrible phenomenon – and it is indeed terrible.”
On other topics, the committee took a stronger stand. Their recommendations included:
• Budgetary allocation from the Prime Minister’s Office for a public awareness campaign against excluding women in public spaces.
• The establishment of a clear government work-flow for handling complaints.
• Publication of governmental guidelines forbidding the exclusion of women in governmental ceremonies and events.
• Publication of strict guidelines for Jewish burial societies. Women can no longer be forbidden from eulogizing at funerals, or accompanying the dead.
Tammy Katsbian, coordinator of the Coalition against the Exclusion of Women of the New Israel Fund, said that there is tremendous value in the committee recommendations, but felt that the group should not leave the decision-making in the hands of individual government ministries, such as the Transportation Ministry. “The main problem is that there are very few operative conclusions — no punishments, no legislation, no transfer of funds, and no unequivocal actions against the exclusion of women,” she said.