Last week I decided the time had finally come to once again board a No. 40 bus in Jerusalem. I was not looking forward to it. The last time I tried to take a seat on that bus, in 2004, my simple ride home quickly turned into a nightmarish journey of abuse and humiliation. During the entire ride, a sweating, overbearing young man dressed in the black garb of a haredi (ultra-Orthodox) yeshiva student hung over me, demanding I move to the back, where he was convinced women belonged. I ignored him, but when I finally reached my stop, I found myself shaken and in tears, vowing never to return.
When I published my experiences in The Jerusalem Post, other women soon came forward with their own horror stories. Spearheaded by the Israel Religious Action Center, we took the battle against discriminatory practices on public transportation to the Supreme Court, suing the bus companies Egged and Dan as well as the Transportation Ministry.
While I willingly joined in, I sometimes found the proceedings less than encouraging.
The ministry committee set up by court order to study the problem took a year and a half longer than scheduled to finish its work. At long last, it finally stated that “every bus passenger be allowed to sit anywhere there is a vacant seat… and that no public buses be designated as sex-segregated.”
Apparently happily in bed with his haredi coalition partners, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz didn’t agree. With true chutzpa, he recommended the opposite: that buses put up signs encouraging women to “voluntarily” sit in the back, and that there be a trial period to see how many women were abused. Luckily, this infuriating exercise in capitulation to religious extremists in the name of political expediency was rejected by the court.
Still, during the whole process, I never felt particularly encouraged by the judges, who bent over backwards to exude neutrality. And thus on January 5, when the final verdict was issued, I found myself both dumbfounded and overjoyed, understanding for the first time what had really been going on inside kippawearing Judge Rubinstein’s head.
“Woe to ears that hear such things,” he wrote in his decision concerning my affidavit.
“Where is the respect for human beings that overrides ‘even the prohibitions in the Torah?’ (Babylonian Talmud, Brachot 19).”
I was particularly stunned at the following story brought down by Judge Rubinstein, quoting Rabbi Shmuel Greenfeld, who wrote: “Rabbi Shlomo Zalman Auerbach was sitting next to my cousin on a bus when a woman got on. The Rav turned to my cousin and said: ‘Who is giving up his seat, you or me?’ My cousin got up and the woman sat down next to the Rav.”
The verdict itself, though, left something to be desired. It was basically live and let live – everyone could sit where they pleased, even on so-called “Mehadrin” buses; passenger harassment was a criminal offense; and drivers should police the situation. They gave their solution’s workability a one year trial period.
With the end of the trial period only months away, I was curious as to how all this was working out on the 40 bus route. I wanted to see with my own eyes if our long struggle had been worth it, and if the landmark legal decision for human rights in Israel had achieved anything of practical value.
It wasn’t an easy decision. As a religious woman facing the self-scrutiny and repentance required by the month of Elul, I asked myself if it was proper to risk triggering verbal abuse or physical violence. On the other hand, wasn’t it better for me to deliberately check out the situation and publicize the results, rather than allow some poor, unsuspecting tourist or Tel Avivian to unknowingly step into the situation? I admit, my heart skipped a beat when I saw the 40 bus pull up. An unpleasant sense of déjà vu enveloped me as I stepped inside, sitting down in exactly the same spot I’d chosen seven years before. The first thing I did was look around for the court-ordered sign reminding passengers they were free to choose their seats. It was nowhere to be found. Xeroxed and merely Scotch-taped inside buses, it had obviously been ripped off.
I glanced at the driver, wondering if he, too, was going to have the strength of Scotch tape when and if I needed him.
So far, I didn’t. The lone haredi man who had boarded with me had taken his seat and watched me take mine without a word of protest. The bus soon continued to its next stop, the one in which seven years previously all my problems had started. I glimpsed a large group of bearded haredi men in black hats and black suits toting packages and religious texts crowding the front door getting ready to board.
I sat there feeling vulnerable, exposed and helpless. Judge Rubinstein was far away.
One after another the men got on, glancing in my direction, then moving past. Not one of them stopped. Not a single one directed a word to me.
With each stop, the bus grew more and more crowded, until the entire front section was almost completely filled, except for the double seat facing me, which remained empty. I felt a twinge of regret that my presence was preventing it from being used. In fact, if someone had asked me politely to move, I would probably have even agreed.
But no one did. In fact, no one said a word, or bothered me in any way. It was almost like being on a normal public bus, I thought, the kind I was used to taking every day.
Anxious to be done with my experiment and conscious that at any point in my journey the story could take a dangerous or unpleasant turn, I felt a sense of relief as we neared my final stop.
When I exited, I suddenly remembered the words that had been shouted at me so many years before: “There are laws in this country!” I smiled, thinking: There certainly are. While far from perfect, perhaps the decision of our Supreme Court justices clarifying the basic rules of conduct on public buses to all the citizens of Israel has done its work in helping us to all breathe easier as we board our public buses. Perhaps this is what a modest victory looks like for all sides.
On the way back home, I watched a 40 bus pull up to a crowded stop in Geula, all the men exiting from the front doors, all the women from the back, only to mingle and brush against each other in the crowded streets.
And later that day when I switched on my computer, I read about new immigrant Rachel Weinstein’s recent harassment by a hysterical female passenger on a Beit Shemesh bus and the unfortunate experience of a woman on a No. 56 bus who had to ask for the driver’s protection, only to be told by him (and later, by an Egged spokesman) that it was forbidden for drivers to interfere.
While far from perfect, perhaps the decision of our Supreme Court justices clarifying the basic rules of conduct on public buses to all the citizens of Israel has done its work in helping us to all breathe easier.
The journey isn’t over, but we are certainly further along.
This column was published in the Jerusalem Post on Friday, 7 October 2011.