The American legal system decided decades ago that there is no such thing as “separate but equal.” Segregation is just a fancy word for discrimination. And being forced to the back of a plane — or a bus — is the same as saying you’re not good enough to sit in the front.
Debra Ryder, a Florida woman who says she was pushed out of her aisle seat on an El Al flight after ultra-Orthodox men refused to sit next to her, has sued the Israeli airline. She was, she said in her August complaint, “humiliated” and led by a flight attendant to a middle seat in the back of a recent flight from New York to Tel Aviv.
Ryder is seeking $12,500 in compensation from the national carrier, and in the process has reignited a fierce argument: When does protecting the beliefs of the ultra-Orthodox constitute sexism?
To those who believe in equal treatment, it’s when women are pushed to the rear of a jetliner or to the back of a bus. To ultra-Orthodox adherents, it’s not sexism but a question of morality.
It is said that when a baby elephant is trained in captivity, it is tethered to a post. It learns that it can move only in a circumscribed space when it’s tied up. After the elephant becomes a large and powerful animal, it could easily uproot the post. But it still assumes that when tethered, it can move only in that same, limited space.
I thought of the baby elephant story when I read Elana Maryles Sztokman’s recent Sisterhood post “Are Women or Communal Structures to Blame for Economic Disparities.” Citing the average $28,000 pay disparity between men and women in Jewish communal organizations, she concludes that blaming the structure is more fruitful than focusing on the power that lies in our hands to make change. Casting women as victims rather than as actors with the power to shape our own fate is outdated thinking that no longer reflects reality, nor does it serve us well today.
Inarguably, women have been discriminated against, by law and by custom. It’s not right that women in the U.S. earn 20 percent less than men; it’s not right that — despite being 60 percent of college graduates, 50 percent of the workforce, and 54 percent of the voters — it will, at the rate we’re going, take 70 years for women to reach parity in top leadership positions.
When the first gender-segregated buses appeared on the Israeli roads in 1997, I don’t think anyone could have predicted how far the phenomenon would spread. Today, not only are there gender segregated buses in many Israeli cities — and even on bus lines that go through non-Haredi neighborhoods — but there are segregated post offices, banks, health care centers, police stations, pharmacies, supermarkets, candy stores, conferences, elevators, Luna Parks, cemeteries, city streets, schools, courtyards, tours of historic sites, and the Western Wall. There have been conferences of the Education Ministry and events from a variety of local municipalities that demanded segregation. And there is currently pressure to introduce separate trains and buses as well.
“This is actually against the law,” said Knesset Member Nitzan Horowitz on Tuesday at a special Knesset session dedicated to examining this troubling and growing phenomenon. In fact, all of these locations are meant to be public spaces that, according to a 1949 decree of the first government — signed also by four religious parties at the time — must be guaranteed full equality. In addition, a 2000 law forbids “discrimination in products, services and entrance to places of entertainment and public spaces”.
While much of the weekend’s news cycle was devoted to Bibi-Bidengate, another event in Israel this weekend caught my eye: the protest against sex-segregated buses, which fellow Sisterhood blogger Allison Kaplan Sommer writes about here. In the Sisterhood’s earlier coverage of the issue, Elana Sztokman rightly called the so-called “modesty” policy on public buses deeply discriminatory and sexist. Judy Mandelbaum at Salon’s Broadsheet also has a great round-up of the weekend’s protest and the history of the issue.
There’s a fine line between freedom of religion and the basic democratic principle of separation of religion and state, and it can get particularly thorny in a Jewish state. But at the end of the day, the right to practice one’s religious rituals on public property can’t interfere with others’ right to dignity, equality and basic freedoms. When it does, as is the case with the buses, it’s time for the government to interfere.
We face the problem here, too, as our endless tussle over health-care reform proves. Again and again, issues like abortion and abstinence-only education hold up progress, held hostage by “values” legislators, a code phrase for religiously motivated, socially conservative folks.
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