A group of Israeli women are fighting back against what one called “Taliban-like” Jewish fundamentalists who order women to sit in the back of the bus and to abstain from wearing “immodest” clothing on public bus lines. The women have filed a lawsuit in Israel’s high court aimed at reforming bus lines used primarily by ultra-Orthodox Jews. Some of the women see the bus dispute as part of a larger struggle against the growing influence and radicalization of the ultra-Orthodox in Israel.
Writer Naomi Ragen says she did not 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 No. 40 bus line, headed to her house near Jerusalem, when an ultra-Orthodox — or Haredi — man told her to move to the back.
I live in a part of Brooklyn where I see a lot of Hasidim around. Obviously, I can’t actually get an insider’s view of them, but from the outside, there’s a lot of sex segregation on display, not to mention a lot of self-segregation from society. The men all dress very distinctly, which marks them as different (there are variations, but among the Hasidim, the men generally wear long beards, black wool suits with white shirts, black hats and side curls), while the women dress conservatively but not so distinctly that someone not familiar with, say, the style of wig a lot of the married women wear might not realize that they belong to an insular, separatist religious community.
And the sexes do not mix, except within family units.
On some level, they’re not much different than the Dominionists or other separatist Christian fundamentalist groups, with a few very big exceptions. Aside from the obvious religious differences, the ultra-Orthodox do not proselytize* and they are aware that they have little political power here in the US.
But things are a bit different in Israel, where Jews run things and the ultra-Orthodox are granted a lot of deference. IIRC, they’re exempt from mandatory military service (Israeli readers correct me), and they have a great deal more political power than they do in the US.
And when a group that is rigid in its beliefs has political power, and has been granted deference, they start thinking that their rules should apply to everyone. Hence, Naomi Ragen’s encounter on the bus:
Ragen says the harassment grew worse at every stop. Soon an even more aggressive, bearded ultra-Orthodox man got on and commanded her to move. He weighed about 300 pounds and hovered over her like a sumo wrestler, she says, his long, black frock and wide hat in her face.
“And he started screaming and yelling,” she said, telling her to “move to the back of the bus — or else.”
“My reaction to that was I looked him in the eye and said ‘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’ll move,’” Ragen said. “‘Until then, get out of my face!’”
Interesting, isn’t it, that the battleground for public order and decency for fundamentalist groups of whatever stripe is the female body and its modest covering. They go to great lengths, when they have some power, to harass women into covering up and shutting up and doing what they’re told. Instead of, say, controlling themselves.
And if you give them an inch, they’ll take a mile:
Ragen may have been the Haredi’s worst target: The feisty 57-year-old New York-born novelist and feminist has signed on to a new legal challenge to the 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.”
“I call this the Taliban lines,” Ragen said. “They can call it whatever they want. But that, to me, is what they are. They’re the Taliban lines and there’s no reason we should have them in Israel. I think it’s important that women have taken a stand and gone to the Supreme Court with this and said, ‘We’re angry and we’re not going to take it anymore.’”
Ten years ago, as part of a pilot project, two bus lines dedicated to the ultra-Orthodox community were launched.
Today — unofficially — 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 telegraphing that they’re aimed at the ultra Orthodox. . . .
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 “to respect the Haredi-religious sector that uses public transportation and to let them behave in a way that is convenient to them.”
Erez-Likhowski said 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.
“The ministry’s attitude is, ‘This is none of our business,’” Erez-Likhwoski said. His response? “But it is exactly your business to supervise the public bus companies and this is what you’ve failed to do over the past years.”
It’s not just the buses, either; the Haredi are trying to impose their rules on other aspects of Israeli society:
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 short 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 a 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 a Haredi culture where many women are the main family breadwinner while the men study Torah full time.
The desire to control women is so strong that they’ll suffer financially to do it. And they know the government will look the other way.
Ragen says these moves are merely more attempts to control women.
“I think it’s shocking,” she said. “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. What’s the next step? People don’t want to stand on the same line at the supermarket? Maybe we’ll have separate sides of the street and right after that come the veils.”
Think it can’t happen here?
*Not unless you’re already Jewish, I’m told. That is, if they accept that your Reform
ed ass is Jewish to begin with.