Jerusalem's 'Rosa Parks' Fights 'Modesty Patrols'

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man rides a bus in Jerusalem in early February. i

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man rides a bus in Jerusalem in early February. Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images
An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man rides a bus in Jerusalem in early February.

An ultra-Orthodox Jewish man rides a bus in Jerusalem in early February.

Gali Tibbon/AFP/Getty Images

A group of Israeli women are fighting back against what one called "Taliban-like" Jewish fundamentalists who order women to sit in the back of the bus and to abstain from wearing "immodest" clothing on public bus lines. The women have filed a lawsuit in Israel's high court aimed at reforming bus lines used primarily by ultra-Orthodox Jews. Some of the women see the bus dispute as part of a larger struggle against the growing influence and radicalization of the ultra-Orthodox in Israel.

Writer Naomi Ragen says she did not want to start a revolution from her bus seat or become the Jewish Rosa Parks. She just wanted to get home. An observant, Orthodox Jew, Ragen was on the No. 40 bus line, headed to her house near Jerusalem, when an ultra-Orthodox — or Haredi — man told her to move to the back.

"I was astonished," Ragen recalled. "And I said 'I'm not bothering anyone. You don't have to look at me, sit next to me — but as long as this is a public bus, I will sit where I please, thank you very much.'"

Ragen says the harassment grew worse at every stop. Soon an even more aggressive, bearded ultra-Orthodox man got on and commanded her to move. He weighed about 300 pounds and hovered over her like a sumo wrestler, she says, his long, black frock and wide hat in her face.

"And he started screaming and yelling," she said, telling her to "move to the back of the bus — or else."

"My reaction to that was I looked him in the eye and said 'Look, you show me in the code of Jewish law where it's written that I'm not allowed to sit in this seat and I'll move,'" Ragen said. "'Until then, get out of my face!'"

Ragen may have been the Haredi's worst target: The feisty 57-year-old New York-born novelist and feminist has signed on to a new legal challenge to the de facto gender-segregation on more than 30 public bus lines in Israel, and the restrictions randomly enforced by men and self-styled "modesty patrols."

"I call this the Taliban lines," Ragen said. "They can call it whatever they want. But that, to me, is what they are. They're the Taliban lines and there's no reason we should have them in Israel. I think it's important that women have taken a stand and gone to the Supreme Court with this and said, 'We're angry and we're not going to take it anymore.'"

Ten years ago, as part of a pilot project, two bus lines dedicated to the ultra-Orthodox community were launched.

Today — unofficially — there are more than 30 gender-segregated Haredi bus routes. In many cases these buses are half the price and the only lines running between some cities and neighborhoods. They look like every other public bus: There are no signs telegraphing that they're aimed at the ultra Orthodox.

There are no written or overtly stated rules about gender segregation, either. It's just the way it is, says one rider who asked not to be named during a recent ride on the No. 40 bus in Jerusalem.

As the bus approached a Haredi neighborhood, four schoolgirls got up from their seats and moved to the back of the bus. None wanted to talk to a reporter.

The lawsuit before Israel's high court alleges that several women have been harassed, humiliated, taunted and even physically assaulted on the buses. In December, a Canadian Orthodox Jew was on a non-Haredi bus line en route to the Western Wall, Judaism's holiest site, when she was assaulted by an ultra-Orthodox man for refusing to move to the back of the bus. She has signed on to the lawsuit.

"She was physically hurt; she was beaten very hard," said Orly Erez-Likhowski, an attorney with the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, who is leading the legal fight against the Ministry of Transportation and the Egged bus company, a quasi-private line heavily subsidized by the state.

The Ministry refused to comment on tape. A spokesman said only that while the ministry approves new lines, the seating arrangements are left to the bus company.

The bus company released a statement saying they let the ultra Orthodox enforce their own rules. The company says its own surveys show that the general public wants "to respect the Haredi-religious sector that uses public transportation and to let them behave in a way that is convenient to them."

Erez-Likhowski said the suit doesn't aim to shut the bus lines down, but to have them regulated and reformed or to have an equal number of non-Haredi lines added.

"The ministry's attitude is, 'This is none of our business,'" Erez-Likhwoski said. His response? "But it is exactly your business to supervise the public bus companies and this is what you've failed to do over the past years."

Supporters say the legal challenge is part of a wider religious and cultural struggle against what some see as the growing radicalism and political clout of the ultra Orthodox. Last month, senior Haredi rabbis in Jerusalem led a public burning of see-through stockings and other allegedly risque dress.

Before a gay pride march last fall, Haredi men rioted nightly for weeks, forcing organizers to hold a toned-down rally in a heavily guarded stadium instead of a public march.

The Haredi recently launched a short boycott of El Al, Israel's national airline, after the company flew on the Sabbath following a flight bottleneck prompted by a labor strike. The airline quickly caved and pledged never to fly on the Sabbath without approval from ultra-Orthodox rabbis.

And in a major decision last month a committee of leading ultra-Orthodox rabbis here ruled that Haredi women should no longer be allowed to get academic degrees beyond high school.

It's a potentially devastating edict in a Haredi culture where many women are the main family breadwinner while the men study Torah full time.

Ragen says these moves are merely more attempts to control women.

"I think it's shocking," she said. "We have more and more streets with signs on them which say, 'Only women dressed modestly can walk through our streets,' — all of a sudden, our streets are being taken over. What's the next step? People don't want to stand on the same line at the supermarket? Maybe we'll have separate sides of the street and right after that come the veils."

But opponents call the lawsuit an attack on Haredi religious values and culture. Israeli educator and writer Shira Leibowitz-Schmidt, of the Haredi College for Women, says the gender segregation is a natural attempt by the ultra Orthodox to combat what they see as secular Israel's growing permissiveness and the eroticization of public spaces.

"Today in Israel, women go around sometimes as if they're at the beach," she said. "It's really very undignified and it's erotically stimulating and it's also just distracting. And that's a form of coercion — I call that non-religious coercion. I call that coercion of eroticism. That's a much more serious problem: the creeping degradation of the public square."

The de facto Haredi bus restrictions, she says, help men focus on their family — and their wife — and avoid distractions.

The legal challenge to the gender-segregated Haredi bus lines is scheduled to go before Israel's High Court later this year.

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