x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Gender-segregated bus row highlights divisions of secular and ultra-Orthodox Israel

A woman refusing to move to the back of a bus has become a symbol of the escalating tensions between Israel's secular Jews and the ultra-religious.

An Orthodox Jewish man sits close to a woman on a bus in the centre of Jerusalem earlier this month. Israel’s Supreme Court has ruled that public buses, which serve Israel’s most conservative, ultra-Orthodox communities, cannot enforce separation between the sexes.
An Orthodox Jewish man sits close to a woman on a bus in the centre of Jerusalem earlier this month. Israel’s Supreme Court has ruled that public buses, which serve Israel’s most conservative, ultra-Orthodox communities, cannot enforce separation between the sexes.

TEL AVIV // When Tanya Rosenblit boarded a bus last Friday, she did not know she would emerge a symbol of the escalating tensions between Israel's secular Jews and the ultra-religious.

Ms Rosenblit, 28, sat behind the driver at the front of a public bus on her way to Jerusalem. She was appalled when an ultra-Orthodox male passenger cursed her and demanded that she move to the back portion because he did not want to sit behind a woman.

She refused to budge, drawing a crowd of about 20 ultra-Orthodox men, all of them bearded and wearing their traditional black garb and broad hats, to gather in protest outside the bus's door. To her surprise, a policeman summoned by the bus driver asked her to "respect" the men by shifting to a back row, Ms Rosenblit wrote in an account that she posted on the social-networking site Facebook.

The incident attracted wide media attention in Israel, where the secular majority has become embittered over what many claim to be religious interference in their lifestyles by a fast-growing ultra-Orthodox minority.

Yediot Ahronot, Israel's largest newspaper, placed the story on its front page on Sunday, with the headline: "They Won't Tell Me Where to Sit". It was just the latest instance in which ultra-Orthodox males tried to force women to sit in the back rows of buses. According to the Jewish activist organisation Israel Religious Action Centre (Irac), which provides legal aid to women such as Ms Rosenblit, there have been dozens of such cases in recent years. In one case in 2006, an American-Israeli woman was slapped, kicked, punched and pushed by a gang of ultra-religious men when she refused to move to the back of a Jerusalem bus.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews, known in Israel as Haredim - a Hebrew term referring to their fear of God - are tight-knit community making up about 10 per cent of Israel's population of 7.7 million. They usually remain in their own neighbourhoods or towns, where women who don't wear long dark dresses or cover their heads with hats, scarves or wigs frequently face quiet or open hostility.

More than a decade ago, the ultra-Orthodox asked Israel's biggest bus firm, Egged, to provide gender-segregated bus routes in their neighbourhoods.

Currently, about 50 bus lines have separate seating. Their routes run mainly through ultra-religious neighbourhoods and skip over central bus stations to avoid catering to the general public.

Typically women are required to enter through the back doors and wear modest clothes that cover their arms and legs, and those who attempt to sit at the front are often subjected to assaults by male passengers, mostly verbal but sometimes physical.

The political establishment has in recent years done little to stop the phenomenon, mostly because of the political clout exercised by the ultra-Orthodox due to their bloc voting patterns and Israeli leaders' reliance on religious parties to help form governing coalitions.

The gender-segregated buses remain despite the Supreme Court ruling last January for the first time that they were illegal. Nevertheless, the transportation ministry now requires buses to post stickers inside that say every passenger could choose his or her own seating.

Two weeks ago, another woman won a lawsuit against a bus company after a driver of one of one of its buses made her sit in the back on the way to an ultra-Orthodox town.

In an interview, the 62-year-old head of a women's organisation, who asked to be identified only by her first name, Hannah, for personal security reasons, said she had repeatedly faced verbal harassment when travelling on buses. In one instance in 2007, a Haredi male tried to force her to move to the back of the bus by screaming into her ear while she was talking on her mobile phone. A week later, several Haredi men opened wide the bus window closest to her on a rainy, windy day after she refused to budge from her front row seat.

"It was scary - I shook inside," Hannah said. "In one instance they told me they would find out where I live and take care of me. But I kept on riding this route because I didn't want to give up and hide."

A spokesman for the government-subsidised Egged, on whose bus Ms Rosenblit travelled, said that the firm "does not deal with seating arrangements" on its vehicles and denied there was forced separation of men and women.

foreign.desk@#thenational.ae