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.
Rachel Levin Weinstein, a social worker who made aliyah to Israel from Chicago just two months ago, has faced her share of challenges recently, as does every new immigrant – everything from learning how to pay her bills in a new language, to getting her four kids settled in school, to figuring out how to find the brand of yogurt her family likes at the supermarket.
The last experience that Weinstein expected to find challenging was simply riding a bus. But she did so this week, in a truly heroic fashion, when she resisted pressure to sit on the back of the bus because she was a woman.
It all began when she and her husband innocently boarded a local bus in their adopted city of Beit Shemesh on Monday, without knowing that it was a bus line that was “mehadrin” – meaning that genders were separated and women were supposed to proceed to the back, out of men’s range of vision.
I am the first to admit that there are many people out there with greater and deeper Jewish knowledge than I. Nonetheless, one thing I am pretty sure of is that women and men stood together at Sinai, and that wives walked side-by-side with their husbands as they made pilgrimage to Jerusalem to celebrate Shavuot during Temple times.
So, why then, should Jewish women today have to walk separately from men to the Kotel to pray this year on Shavuot, which begins tonight? Actually, if certain Haredi authorities had it their way, not only would women walk a different route through the Old City of Jerusalem, but they wouldn’t go to the Kotel tonight at all.
Rafi G. of the Life in Israel blog, wrote yesterday about the anonymous posting of flyers around Jerusalem warning women to stay home on Erev Shavuot, and ordering them to take a separate route (if they feel they must come to pray) to the Kotel on Shavuot morning. The handbills describe the narrow streets and alleyways of the Old City as being very crowded on the holiday, so obviously women should be the ones to be inconvenienced by walking via the Jaffa Gate. The shorter Nablus Gate route is reserved for men, the flyer pronounces.
The practice of gender segregation on public buses in Israel has received new and unexpected support from American Modern Orthodoxy. The Rabbinical Council of America journal Tradition recently published an article by Rabbi Dr. Yehuda “Ronnie” Warburg entitled “The Practice of Gender Separation on Buses in the Ultra-Orthodox Community in Israel: A View from the Liberal Cathedral” that justifies gender segregation in the name of multiculturalism.
The essay is characteristically Modern Orthodox in that it uses academic sources to bolster a halachic argument. Warburg, described as “a dayyan in Chassidic, modern Orthodox and Yeshiva communities in New York and New Jersey,” quotes feminists such as Susan Moller Okin in his analysis of Rav Moshe Feinstein’s ruling regarding whether men are aroused by sitting next to women. The essay is perhaps surprising, or perhaps not; to bring academic arguments about gender only to reject them as merely one subjective perspective, while Feinstein’s words are taken as incontrovertible, seems to me a bit disingenuous.
The violence in Mea Shearim coming from proponents of public gender segregation has apparently started to get personal. Several activists who have been particularly vocal or public in their opposition to gender segregation say they have been threatened and stalked by gender-segregation fanatics in Jerusalem.
Avital Livny, the Volunteer Coordinator for the organization Yisrael Hofshit [“Free Israel”], whose contact details were posted on flyers and Facebook pages in advance of recent protests against gender segregation on the streets of Mea Shearim, reports receiving dozens of threatening phone calls trying to stop the organization’s activity. Similarly, Rona Orovano, the Vice Chair of the Bezalel Academy Student Union and founder of the Organizational Forum for a Free Jerusalem, said she has received threatening phone calls, emails and Facebook messages such as, “We are waiting for you with rocks,”and “We know where you live” — and even a death threat.
A religious girls’ school in the Israeli town of Emmanuel — a school that first made headlines in 2008 when it was discovered that Sephardic students were separated from Ashkenazic students both in and out of the classroom — is back in the news. Though its ethnic segregation was declared illegal by the Supreme Court, the school has yet to comply with orders for integration.
The two groups had separate curricula, separate classrooms, separate staff rooms and separate yards delineated by a cement wall to prevent interaction. Following a national outcry, led by the Sephardic feminist organization Achoti, and the organizations Noar KaHalakha and Tmura, the courts intervened and eventually ruled that the segregation was illegal. But the school last week was declared in contempt of court and ordered to pay a 5,000 NIS ($1,400) fine for every day that it remain segregated.
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.
The government’s continuing toleration of gender-separated buses, with men sitting in the front and the women in the back, has struck a nerve with the Israeli public, sparking an angry reaction that has been gathering momentum in recent weeks. A large demonstration against the separated buses has taken place, a hotline has been set up for women’s complaints and now a poster campaign protesting the practice has begun. Ynet reports:
Dozens of young people protesting the separation between men and women on public transportation in Jerusalem toured a number of cities Tuesday night where they hung signs in protest of the “mehadrin lines” that stipulate such a separation.
The activists, who will hold a protest in the capital in another two weeks, are also calling for Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, who has allowed the gender separation to be instated, to step down.
Katz has continued to allow the lines to operate in defiance of a temporary injunction issued by Israel’s high court. And the number of bus lines is growing: Currently, such segregated buses operate in Arad, Ashdod, Bat Yam, Bnai Brak, Jerusalem and Tiberias. The protest posters were put up as part of a campaign called “A Stop in Time.”
I knew I would regret it as soon as I started typing, but I did it anyway. As much as I try to avoid getting into virtual arguments in talkback-land, this week I found myself unable to restrain myself. The language, it seems to me, is at the root of the problem, and that’s where the fight needs to take place.
At issue is the latest chapter in the saga of ultra-Orthodox pressure to send women to the back of the bus. Last week, a 60-year-old woman, perhaps inspired by Rosa Parks, sat down in the front and refused to move. When an 18-year old male yeshiva student tried to force her to move by yelling, cursing and threatening her, she eventually responded by showering him with pepper spray.
I kind of wish she hadn’t done that.