The High Court of Justice on Thursday criticized Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz’s decision to allow gender-segregated buses to continue operating, saying his suggestion to hang signs asking non-religious passengers to respect the haredi community’s sensitivities while explaining that the separation isn’t mandatory, was unsatisfactory.

“Perhaps you should put up signs against use of violence instead,” quipped Justice Yoram Danziger.

The High Court has been deliberating the case on the legality of “mehadrin” buses for three years. In May 2008, the court asked the transportation minister to establish a committee to investigate the functioning of the segregated lines.

The request was in response to a petition by the Israel Religious Action Center and others who claimed that the lines are illegal because they discriminate against women, restrict freedom of movement and limit freedom from religious coercion.

The lines, which were launched over the past decade to increase haredi use of public transportation, were meant to be regulated on a voluntary basis, with both the front and back doors of the buses to be open for boarding, though people could choose where they wanted to sit.

In practice, the committee discovered, the rules regarding separation were strictly enforced by members of the haredi community, and women who sat in the front of the bus were often intimidated and bullied into moving to the back or getting off the bus altogether.

The committee ruled that the practice is unjust and that there was no plausible way to legalize it, but that as long as the separation was practiced on a voluntary basis there was nothing the state could do.

In his decision, Katz adopted the committees’ conclusions, but the plaintiffs were unsatisfied. They asked that the court order the minister to respond to all their claims in full.

“Although the minister stated that the commission’s normative position –  not to regulate lines that allow gender segregation is acceptable – in actuality he reached the opposite conclusions than those reached by the committee and failed to explain how his new position is consistent with Israeli law,” read the plaintiffs’ statement to the court.

The court has yet to decide whether to issue the order, and will hold further hearings on the petition.

“The suggestion that a voluntary arrangement can be enforced is very funny,” said Anat Hoffman, director of the Israel Religious Action Center.

“I think the countdown started today about segregation as a religious expression in the Jewish state,” she continued. “It’s a slippery slope. If signage makes it kosher, then next we are going to find segregated post offices, HMOs and sidewalks, all of which we already know examples of.

“Either the court will decide that this has no room in the public sphere and we will not go down the slippery slope, or the court says signage makes it all right and we’re going to float with these signs down the slippery slope and become a very extreme variety of Judaism,” said Hoffman. “God help us if that is the case.”

Jerusalem City Councillor Rachel Azaria told reporters Thursday that Katz had “betrayed the secular, religious and most of the haredi society.

“Katz’s decision is purely political,” she said. “It is unconscionable that because of Shas’s parliamentary clout, every woman will have to sit on the back of the bus when riding these lines.”

Katz’s decision was welcomed by the Rabbinical Committee on Transportation, whose spokesperson said that the minister had shown proper sensitivity to the needs of the haredi community. The spokesman also said that the legal battle is unnecessary because there was never an issue of coercion.

There are currently 56 mehadrin lines operating in and between 28 cities.

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