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Take a Seat

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.

I exhaled.

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.

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10 comments on “Take a Seat”

  1. Rahel

    Lea, how about this: that people sit where they choose on a bus, everybody mind their own business and no one bully anyone else on religious grounds? That would be enough for me.

  2. Sol Hachuel

    I thoroughly approve of segregated bus seating by sex. My solution: Men to the back of the bus, women board an sit in the front. problem solved.

  3. Alan Margolies

    I grew up in a home where my father and mother always treated each other with love and respect…in and out of our home. I would like to know in Torah or Talmud where it teaches any of us to do the opposite. Jews are not perfect, no one is in this world, but Hashem. I wonder if HE would make a woman sit in the rear of any bus…I think not. I am ashamed of any man who would do so…especially young yeshiva pishers! I wonder what kind of families they come from. I’m glad you pursued this abominable behavior. But, what I hear of Hareidi’s, they don’t care…they think arrogantly, they are the only Jews. They will be judged for their inhumane acts. Hashem will probably put them in the back of Ganeden, if they make it.

  4. Heather Chettle

    While working as a volunteer in Jerusalem in the ’90s, I boarded a bus in west Jerusalem (I think it was an 18). I was mortified to see that each seat all the way to the back had one haredi man seated in each seat! so, being of grey hair, I sat in the front seat (for elderly), whereupon the very young man seated there tried to push me out of the seat, but when I refused, he made some bad-sounding comments in Hebrew, and got up and moved. Fortunately my Hebrew was not good enough to know what he said. But I had a nervous rest of the ride.

  5. Brigitte Goldstein

    Some years ago on a flight from Newark to Tel Aviv I was being besieged by two young haredim to give up my seat because the rebbe could not sit next to me. I refused and told them that I had no problem sitting next to the rebbe and if he did he should find another seat. This went back and forth for quite some time while they tried to put the screws on me. I told them that this plane was a public means of a transportation and I had reserved this seat. I remained steadfast and did not relent. They finally found a haredi woman with a child to change seats with and the rebbe and his minion moved to the rear. Many of my friends said, oh, I would just have moved. I am still proud for not having buckled under.

  6. meir weiss

    erev 13 tishrei my fathers yeurtzeit
    should i tell you my experience with haraedi busses???????

    the general rule i ascribe to?
    there is one asile there are two sets of seats
    one side for men one for women side by side segregated. or married couples sit together

    can i tell you stories when the women out numberred the men and the lady who runs the bus in montreal asked me to cede the bus seat so that two women could sit; to then get the seat next to the toilet
    and later found two infants sleeping where i ceded the seat?

    can i tell you of over booking the haraedi bus and i for the very last time ceded my seat to go on a public greyhound bus. my luggage went one place many miles away and i landed up at the new york central station.

    i had to track down my luggage and rescue them.

    many times since then i have been asked to cede my seat and i refuse. i had been burnt enough

  7. Naomi R

    Interestingly enough I had faced a similar situation years ago in Brooklyn on the private bus that runs between Boro Park and Williamsburg. I was told to move to the rear and I refused. It made a number of Hareidi men rather unhappy and some of the women tried to persuade me to do what was “right.” Needless to say I didn’t move then and I wouldn’t move now. Naomi I commend you for your actions. We do still have a long way to go, but we are oppressed enough by our enemies. Kol HaKavod. You will always have my support.

  8. jz

    My take on our law is that we are to show respect to all & certainly to women.

    If a man does not wish to sit near a woman, HE has the option of moving to another seat or standing. That is courtesy. There is nothing in Judaism that encourages one to be rude – neither to men nor women.

    I have met Haredi men who are courteous & polite but many, sadly, consider women & those who don’t share their beliefs to be sub-human [shades of Hitler & his Aryans re ALL Jews].

    I believe, unlike Lea, that it is a win/win situation & if it teaches these men what their mothers apparently didn’t, it’s a bonus

  9. Lea de Lange

    What I read here mainly is how unpleasant, how uncomfortable it all still was. It was not just a busride, it was a ride against certain rules that not even every charedi Jew desires to uphold, it was a ride against extremism, it was a fight. And a fight is not pleasant. One does not board a bus to have a nice fight.
    No. I do not know but my conclusion is that no one won and everyone lost.
    And I have no solution either, can only say that all this struggling only made things worse. This is not America, this is not about civil rights.

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