I went to Israel in July, ready to ride segregated busses in Jerusalem and report to the liberal Jewish feminist community on what I saw. Just before I landed, this blog post went up on the Jewish Women’s Archive “Jewesses With Attitude” site.
But when I actually reported on what had happened, what I wrote was rejected as “too controversial.” What do YOU think?
As a good progressive Jew and feminist, I regularly read the online newsletter of the Israel Religious Action Center, (IRAC), founded in 1987 with the goals of advancing pluralism in Israeli society and defending the freedoms of conscience, faith, and religion. They stage demonstrations of women permission to praying at the Kotel with Torahs and Tallitot, and frequently get harassed. They also champion Reform and Conservative interests in congregations in court. They get me upset on a regular basis. Their mission includes fighting the ultra-Orthodox Jews on the far right, also called Haredim. These Haredim are so zealous in defending their brand of religion that they impinge on the rights of others—women in particular.
One such practice is the segregated bus, where women sit in the back and men sit in the front. IRAC regularly organizes “Freedom Rides,” where women sit in the front, because these segregated busses seem ridiculous in a country where women serve in the Army. It seems foolish to herd them to the back of the bus. Since I was going to Israel anyway, I tried to join a “Freedom Ride, ” IRAC never answered me except to say “you are just one person, come with a group and we’ll talk.”
Ruth Marcus, who writes for the Washington post, must have come with a group. She was in Israel and rode a segregated bus with representatives of IRAC. You can read about it here:
So had my cousin Sandy come with me to see what these Haredi busses were like. They are called “Mehadrin,” which is the same word applied to kosher food which is prepared according to ultra-strict standards. Egged, which is a government run company and by far the biggest bus company in Israel, runs them, and it is simple to see why. These busses typically run with full loads of passengers, which is the holy grail of any mass transportation company. They are also fairly rare, only running from certain neighborhoods to other neighborhoods, and you have to find them by word of mouth.
Just so you know, in America, we also have segregated busses that cater to the Ultra-Orthodox communities. These busses are run by private companies, and are divided by a curtain running down the middle of the bus (Yes! A mehitza!), so the resonance with the segregation of the Old South does not apply. These busses have been have been going to Manhattan for decades. Men can daven during their commute.
But back to Jerusalem.
“I don’t want any trouble,” Sandy said. “So we are going to have to dress you up.” I put on a light shirt that covered my elbows, and a wrap skirt that covered my knees, and I was ready. Sandy didn’t think that head covering was needed—I could be a widow, after all. Or single.
Then we went to Mea Shearim and looked for segregated busses. Some women we spoke to told us that if we wanted to ride in the front, we had every legal right to. “There are signs on every bus near the driver” We rode the #56 line, which runs from the center of Jerusalem to a section of town called Ramat Shlomo, three times, and on our last trip, we were part of a large crowd that sorted itself by gender. One woman repeatedly told us, in Hebrew, that women rode in the back, but we played dumb and got on at the front of the bus so the driver could punch our transfer tickets. We stood with the driver, admiring the scenery of Jerusalem before us, and then looked back. A phalanx of black coats and hats looked back at us. Every seat appeared to be full, and some men were standing in the aisle, blocking our access to the back.
The wall of black coats intimidated me, even with all those Shirley Temple ringlets bobbing around. The men didn’t SAY anything, just stood there and stared at us, and blocked the aisle.
Sandy asked the driver “Should we push our way to the back?”
“Better stay up here, with me,” the driver answered.
So we did, back to the center of Jerusalem, and relative sanity.