Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz is facing criticism following his response to the High Court decision on Sunday regarding segregated bus lines. Katz, in his reply to the court, said that the buses would remain in operation, but that the state would not tolerate the use of threats and violence to enforce the separation.
Katz wrote Sunday that while the state could not establish separation between men and women using public transportation, operators should be permitted to hang “behavior-directing” signs asking passengers to sit separately, but indicating that it is not mandatory.
“The minister is trying to push a round peg through a square hole,” said Rabbi Uri Regev, director of Hiddush, a non-profit organization aimed at promoting religious freedom in Israel. “What he’s saying is that the state won’t pass a law making the arrangement legal, but also wouldn’t do anything to stop it.”
The High Court has been deliberating the case for three years. In May 2008, the court asked the transportation minister to establish a special committee to investigate the operation of the “mehadrin lines,” in response to a petition by the Israel Religious Action Center and others who claim that the lines may be illegal because they discriminate against women, restrict freedom of movement and freedom from religious coercion.
The lines, which were originally established in the beginning of the past decade to increase haredi use of public transportation, were meant to be regulated on a voluntary basis, whereby both the front and back doors of the buses would be available for boarding, but 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 population and women who sat in “male territory,” at the front of the bus, were often intimidated and bullied into moving to the back or getting off the bus altogether.
One of the main problems the committee faced in its deliberations was that the mehadrin bus lines had no formal standing. Because it was meant to be strictly voluntary, the Transportation Ministry could not set up strict regulations.
The committee also criticized the public transportation operators and the bus drivers themselves for helping enforce the separation, something they were not allowed to do, and for failing to meet their obligations to the general public by reducing regular bus lines to places where “mehadrin buses” operated.
In his decision, Katz in effect accepted the committee’s recommendations by stating that the lines could carry on operating as long as it was done on a voluntary basis, but Regev said that by doing so, he was missing the point.
“The fact is that as soon as the government gives the green light for the mehadrin buses, it perpetuates an intolerable situation. The problem isn’t that there is no state law in place, the problem is that there is a supposed divine law that forbids women and men from sitting next to each other and that it is stringently enforced by some members of the haredi community,” said Regev. “Katz’s solution is to put signs up on the buses that explain the nature of the seating arrangement, but also state that it is voluntary. What this will do is make a criminal out of anybody who doesn’t honor the arrangement, instead of those who threaten and abuse them.”
Katz was also criticized for stating that there was no evidence of violence or coercion being used against women on the lines and that the female passengers voluntarily observed the separation.
“It’s not clear on what authority he rejected the committee’s determination that the separation involves violence and coercion against women. How could such an arrangement be voluntary? How could verbal violence and pressure against a woman who boards the bus be prevented?” asked attorney Einat Hurvitz, who represented the plaintiffs in court.
According to a survey conducted by Hiddush, 41 percent of the Jewish population in Israel said mehadrin lines should be canceled, 39% said they should be limited to special routes, 14% said they should continue operating unchanged and 6% said they should be extended further.
A Jerusalem Post
found that 76% of those who responded did not approve of segregated
buses, 6% approved and 18% said that segregation should only exist in
lines that operate in haredi neighborhoods.
Katz’s decision was welcomed by the Rabbinical Committee on
Transportation, whose spokesperson said the minister had shown proper
sensitivity to the needs of the haredi community. The spokesman also
said that the legal battle was unnecessary because there was never an
issue of coercion.
There are currently 56 mehadrin lines in operation in 28 cities.