The government is expected to decide whether gender-segregated buses are acceptable by next week.
The prospect is scaring many in the Charedi community, who fear that the government will adopt the false assumption that all Charedim want segregated buses.
Over the past few years, almost 40 bus lines running in mostly Charedi areas have been divided, with men sitting at the front and women, who are not allowed to board unless they are dressed modestly, occupying the back. The issue became politically contentious after several women, including novelist Naomi Ragen, were attacked for sitting in the front of the bus on non-segregated lines.
When the Egged bus company resisted instating more “kosher buses” in the capital, the Rabbinic Committee for Transportation Affairs began operating them privately. The Transportation Ministry claims these routes are illegal.
A Transportation Ministry report evaluating the arguments and deciding how to proceed was due 11 days ago but — appropriately, considering the subject matter — is running late.
In the last decade, the pro-segregation lobby has been successful in convincing the country’s largest bus companies that segregation is what the Charedi public wants and therefore makes good business sense. It has also convinced its staunchest opponents that the Charedi position is uniform, including many secular residents of Jerusalem who see this as an issue of religious coercion.
And last month, High Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, who had previously imposed a freeze on all new segregated lines until the Transportation Ministry report is in, decided to allow routes that affect only Charedi areas.
Charedi activists pushing for the buses present it as a grassroots fight with support across the community.
“The assumption is that most would [want segregation] and others won’t mind,” said Mordechai Green, head of Charedi legal group Betzedek, which represents the pro-segregation lobby.
Any ruling against segregation would constitute “a decree forcing the Charedi sector to travel by foot rather than use public transportation”.
But this does not necessarily reflect the Charedi public’s feelings.
“This is an issue on which there is not one view,” said Rabbi Jonathan Rosenblum, head of a media advocacy project for the Charedi community, which generally defends demands made by the Charedi community.
“To many it is of great importance, while there are many to whom it is a matter of indifference or irritation.”
Rabbi Rosenblum said that the issue of segregated buses has been “given prominence out of proportion to the importance attached to it in the Charedi community”.
He believes that on public transport, passengers should be able to choose their own seating, but if private operators want to run additional segregated services they should be free to do so.
Many Charedi women speak privately of disdain for segregated buses but decline to be quoted; meanwhile, leaders who oppose the buses prefer not to be identified. One prominent rabbi descried segregation as “repugnant”, but demanded anonymity.
Nevertheless, some degree of public criticism is surfacing. Of the 1,300 members of the public who wrote to the Transportation Ministry committee objecting to the lines, about 100 were Charedim.
Two weeks ago, the popular Charedi web portal B’chadrei Charedim (“In the rooms of Charedim”) ran an article by Rabbi Yosef Chaim Nakash, a kollel head from Petach Tikva, in which he voiced dismay that gender separation has become so strict that married couples are being separated.
“They are a couple. They are married according to the law of Moses and Israel,” he wrote, raising fears about what future measures may be in store. “Why should it stop here?” he asked rhetorically.