RENEE MONTAGNE, host:
Some Israeli women are fighting back against what one called Taliban-like Jewish fundamentalists. They say these men have ordered women to sit in the back of the bus and to stop wearing, quote, "immodest clothing" on public bus lines used primarily by the ultra-Orthodox. The women have filed a lawsuit in Israel's highest court, aimed at reforming the bus lines. Some of the women see the dispute as part of a larger struggle against the growing influence and radicalization of the ultra-Orthodox in Israel.
NPR's Eric Westervelt has our story.
ERIC WESTERVELT: Writer Naomi Ragen says she didn't 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 number 40 bus line back to her house near Jerusalem when an ultra-Orthodox or Haredi man told her to move to the back.
Ms. NAOMI RAGEN (Writer): I was astonished. And I said to him, look, I'm not bothering anybody. You don't have to look at me, you don't have to sit next to me. But as long as this is a public bus, I will sit where I please. Thank you very much.
WESTERVELT: But the harassment grew worse, Ragen says, at every stop. Soon, an even more aggressive bearded ultra-Orthodox man got in and commanded her to move. He was about 300 pounds and hovered over her like a sumo wrester, she says. His long black frock and wide hat in her face.
Ms. RAGEN: He started screaming and yelling in abusive language and on no uncertain terms told me that I had to move to the back of the bus or else. My reaction to that was to look at him in the eye and to say to him, 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 will move. Until then, get out of my face.
WESTERVELT: Naomi Ragen may have been the Haredi's worst target. The feisty 57-year-old New York born novelist and feminist has now signed on to a new legal challenge to 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.
Ms. RAGEN: I call this the Taliban lines. You know, they can call it whatever they want, but that to me is what they are. They are the Taliban lines, and there's no reason that we should have them in Israel. I think it's important that women have taken a stand, that we've gone to the Supreme Court with this and we've said, you know, we're angry and we're not going to take it anymore.
(Soundbite of bus horn)
WESTERVELT: Ten years ago as part of a pilot project, two bus lines dedicated to the ultra-Orthodox community were launched. Today, unofficially anyway, 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 or anything on the bus telegraphing that they're aimed at the ultra-Orthodox. There are no written or overtly stated rules about gender segregation. It's just the way it is, says one rider who asked not to be named, as we rode the number 40 bus in Jerusalem. As the bus approaches a Haredi neighborhood, four schoolgirls get up from their seats and move 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 on 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.
Ms. ORLY EREZ-LIKHOVSKI (Attorney, Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism): She was physically hurt. She was beaten very hard.
WESTERVELT: Attorney Orly Erez-Likhovski with the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism is heading up 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, quote, "To respect the Haredi religious sector that uses public transportation, and to let them behave in a way that is convenient to them," end quote.
Lawyer Erez-Likhovski says 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.
Mr. EREZ-LIKHOVSKI: The ministry's - basically - attitude is it's none of our business. But, you know, it is exactly our business to supervise the public bus companies, and this is what the ministry has failed to do over the past years.
WESTERVELT: 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 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, the 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 the Haredi culture where many women are the main family breadwinner, while the men study Torah full-time.
Writer Naomi Ragen sees these moves as merely more attempts to control women -what she calls the Talibanization of Judaism by the Haredi.
Ms. RAGEN: I think it's shocking. 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. And then you say, well, okay, what's the next step? People don't want to stand on the same line in the supermarket. Maybe we'll have separate sides of the street. And, you know, right after that come the veils. I mean…
WESTERVELT: But opponents call the lawsuit an attack on Haredi religious values and culture. Israeli educator and writer Shira Leibowitz Schmidt is with the Haredi College for Women. She says that 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.
Ms. SHIRA LEIBOWITZ SCHMIDT (Educator, Writer): Today in Israel, women go around sometimes as if they were on the beach. It's really very undignified and it's erotically stimulating and it's also just distracting. That's a form of coercion. I call that non-religious coercion. I call that coercion of eroticism. That's a, I think, a much more serious problem - the creeping degradation of the public square.
WESTERVELT: The de facto Haredi bus restriction, 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.
Eric Westervelt, NPR News, Jerusalem.