Published in the Jewish Chronicle on 23 February 2007
In July 2004, after spending too much time sitting behind a computer, I took a walk in downtown Jerusalem. I bought Vanity Fair magazine, and looked forward to reading about the goings on at a famous writers’ colony. In this serene state of mind, I boarded the number 40 bus towards my home in the suburb of Ramot.
In an incident which made headlines worldwide, I found myself insulted, humiliated and physically threatened because I refused to be bullied into giving up my seat and moving to the back of the bus. Unbeknown to me, this unmarked bus was part of a mehadrin, or stringent line, in which rabbis, in cooperation with the public bus company Egged, dictate where women can sit – at the back – and what they can wear – only clothing in line with a code of haredi modesty.
Now, two years later, I have joined with the Centre for Jewish Pluralism, part of the Israel Reform Movement, to file suit against Israel’s public bus lines, Egged and Dan, and the Israeli Ministry of Transportation, in the name of women who have suffered abuse or who feel that their human rights have been trampled by the public, sex-segregated mehadrin lines. The suit asks that these buses be suspended until a survey is conducted to gauge the true need for them. If such a need can be proven, the suit asks that provisions be made to clearly mark such buses; that rules governing public behaviour on them be openly displayed, and that provisions be made to protect women passengers from verbal and physical abuse. The petition also demands that alternate public bus lines be made available on the same routes and at the same price.
What happened to me on this Israeli bus generated extraordinary interest worldwide. I have been interviewed on BBC four times. There was a front page article in The Times, in New York’s Newsday, and America’s National Public Radio. I have been filmed for German and Canadian television news programs and interviewed by Der Spiegel, as well as by reporters from Spain, the Netherlands, and France. And now, with this new lawsuit, every day the phone rings with new passengers.
Why has this incident attracted so much media attention? Is it warranted? Or is it just anti-Israel and antisemitic news organisations looking for negative material? If so, why would I, an Orthodox Jewish writer living in Israel who has spent the last 10 years trying to combat media prejudice, cooperate?
The insidious degradation of the faith I was born into, love, and have practiced faithfully all my life by fanatics who pervert its meaning in order to bully women in the name of God, is something I cannot, and will not, abide. First and foremost, because it is a desecration of God’s name; second, because it is limitless.
Why is it that in the past no one insisted on segregated buses? When asked, Rav Moshe Feinstein, a major halachic authority, ruled against the idea. And yet now, suddenly, they are an absolute necessity in the religious world. What happened? And what does it mean when long-held Jewish law and custom can be swept away by some religious politician or some macher in the yeshivah world, who can then establish, at will, new rules that oppress women?
Where does it end?
We in Israel have already seen modesty patrol hooligans roaming religious neighborhoods, assaulting people in the name of religion. We have seen paint and bleach thrown at women by men who disapproved of their clothing. We have seen public bonfires of so-called immodest clothing taken in house-to-house searches. We have seen more and more public streets covered with posters warning women how to dress, or else. In the past few weeks we have seen higher education for haredi women abolished overnight, breaking many hearts.
Ten years ago there were two mehadrin bus lines in Bnai Brak. Today there are 30 all over the country, with a new line being added every month. And two-and-a-half years after my experience on the Egged bus, Miriam Shear, a religious woman on her way to pray at the Kotel, was spat at, then punched, and finally beaten to the floor by four male passengers because she refused to move to the back of the bus. The bus she was on was not part of the mehadrin line.
Ayaan Hirsan Ali, the brave Somali woman who is still under a death threat for making a movie in the Netherlands depicting the brutal treatment of Muslim women (her director, Theo Van Gogh, was murdered), recently said that 20 years ago, none of the women in Somalia wore veils. Then a few men forced the issue, and now all of the women are in veils. What she said holds true for all of us: “We are not fighting for freedom for its own sake but from a life of repression, subordination and violence,” she declared.
Today, it’s just a seat on a bus. But there is no telling what it will be tomorrow. I hate bad publicity about Israel. But what I hate even more is the idea that the beautiful spirit of Judaism I have spent my life cultivating and passing on; the Jewish State I love, and have spent my life building and defending, will be changed, incrementally, beyond recognition.
We need to draw a red line and defend it so that does not happen. The fact that I and other women have done so is, ultimately, the best possible news about Israel, and the best publicity for the Jewish people.
NOTE: This article was published in the Jewish Chronicle on 23 February 2007.