A new group has joined the fight over gender-segregated bus lines in Israel: religious women who do not want to be forced to sit at the back.
This month, four such groups boarded the “Mehadrin”, or especially stringent buses, running through Jerusalem, pointedly sitting at the front.
“Charedi women on the bus also joined us,” says Rachel Azaria, a religious member of Jerusalem City Council who is leading a coalition of local organisations against the buses.
She says that one of her motives is “preventing these kind of stringent rules from spreading to the entire religious community. We are already hearing some national-religious rabbis speaking approvingly of the buses”.
For the past decade, strictly Orthodox rabbis and community leaders have been demanding more bus lines with segregated seating, where men enter from the front and women enter from the back.
Egged, Israel’s largest public transport co-operative, which heavily relies on Charedi customers, has gradually conformed to this standard on about 55 lines around the country, both within and between cities with large strictly-Orthodox communities.
Two Supreme Court petitions by the Israel Religious Action Centre against the segregated bus lines led to the formation of a government committee on the issue.
After repeated delays, the committee is expected to deliver its report next month, and both sides have been holding demonstrations over recent weeks to underline their positions.
According to Ms Azaria, in Jerusalem, “some of these lines start in the city centre and end in the high-tech industry area at Har Hotzvim and are supposed to serve the entire population of the city”.
She also claims that there are not enough alternative buses for those who do not want to travel segregated.
She says that her group, which includes both secular movements and religious feminist organisations, are giving a voice to members of the Charedi community, some of whom wrote to the government committee opposing the buses.
“Many are not happy with the rabbis’ orders which separate their families, but are afraid to speak out,” she said.
However, Shimon Stern, spokesman of the “Rabbis Committee on Transport” which has been campaigning in favour of the segregated buses, claims that the lines serve the Charedi community exclusively.
“They take our children to their schools and our families to events and no-one else is affected by it. We are not coercing anyone here, the people in the bus know where to sit, all we are asking is for the drivers in these buses to open both entrances and not put on the radio.”
He denies that women who have tried to sit at the front of the bus have been violently abused.
“There are strict rabbis’ orders never to harm anyone who sits at the front. There were a few isolated instances which have been used by this group of radical secular provocateurs, who have solved all of the country’s problems and are now trying to go after the Charedim.”
Neither side believes that the committee’s report will solve the conflict.
Ms Azaria reflected ruefully that in all previous rounds, the Transport Minister had capitulated to the demands of strictly-Orthodox politicians.
Mr Stern does not believe the committee will be sensitive enough to his community’s needs.
“They didn’t see fit to include a Charedi as a committee member.”