Encouraged by my own uneventful ride on a once sex-segregated bus a few months
ago, I thought the whole topic was dying down and we were miraculously learning
to live and let live. Unfortunately, the story of Tanya Rosenblit has brought
the reality of bullying fanaticism masquerading as religious piety roaring back
into the headlines again, with greater force than ever.
Traveling to the
Givat Shaul neighborhood in Jerusalem from her home in Ashdod, she’d boarded the
451 Egged bus from Rova 7 in Ashdod, which would leave her a five-minute walk
from her destination. Innocently, she selected the seat behind the driver
simply because she wanted to ask him when to get off.
The driver didn’t
say anything. What was there to say? Bus 451 has never been designated a
sex-segregated or “mehadrin” line.
A haredi man boarded. Seeing
Rosenblit, he insisted on standing by the doors, apparently because – and this
is news to me though I’ve been Orthodox almost all my life – he was adhering to
the latest, brand new ancient halacha that says a man can’t sit behind a woman.
I’ve since tried looking up this halacha in the Code of Jewish Law, but couldn’t
find it. I guess it’s on the same page where it says you can spit on a woman who
isn’t dressed according to your taste, or throw down a sevenyear- old in the
street on her way to school if you disapprove of girls learning too near where
you live. Or perhaps there is a new code of Jewish law being written even as I
type which, like the information on which buses are now being added to the
mehadrin list, is only available to those self-designated few who have taken on
the task of enlightening the rest of us.
Bus 451 was soon commandeered by
one of them, who directed male passengers to block it from moving. Rosenblit was
barraged with insults and epithets. Loud complaints echoed that their “rights
were being violated.” It was eerily similar to what had happened to me in 2004.
A bully in saint’s clothing trying to force me into the back of a bus kept
saying things like “there are laws in this country!” Like Rosenblit, I felt
humiliated and afraid. And as with Rosenblit, the driver did absolutely nothing
to intervene and protect me.
That is why I joined the Israel Religious
Action Center lawsuit in Israel’s Supreme Court: to clarify the laws governing
public transportation and to prevent my experience from ever happening to
another woman in Israel. Although the Supreme Court decision last year clearly
bans forced segregation on buses and demands bus drivers intervene in case of
such harassment, clearly there is no compliance.
A policeman, called to
the scene in Ashdod, spoke briefly to the driver and at length to the haredi men
finally boarding the bus to ask Rosenblit to move to the back “to honor their
Her answer rings in my ears: “They have to ask themselves what
honor it brings them to degrade and humiliate a woman.”
been vilified on haredi Internet sites, which I guess is to be expected, given
that their code of Jewish law is also missing the pages about avoiding the great
sins of libel, slander and gossip and how embarrassing a person in public is
akin to murder. What haven’t they said about her? That she didn’t live in
Ashdod. That she boarded the bus in order to provoke an incident. That
she deliberately stuck her elbow into the aisle, forcing men to touch her when
they walked by (as if!); that she threatened to take all her clothes off if they
didn’t leave her alone. Rosenblit has called all these accusations “a vile
Invited to join Rosenblit on the evening news with Dan Margalit, I
was astonished when Margalit, whom I have always deeply respected, put Rosenblit
on the hot seat, insinuating that as a journalist (she’s a production assistant
for JNI News and lists herself as a translator and student at Camera Obscura)
she might have been trying to provoke a news-making incident.
sickened by this line of questioning.
As I told her on air, she is a
heroine and I hope every woman would have the guts to behave as she did. I’d
like to use this opportunity to apologize to her. The purpose of all our efforts
in going to court was to keep her and women like her safe from this kind of
harassment. But if this is the result of our efforts then we, and the State of
Israel, have failed her miserably.
WHO IS responsible? Well, the Supreme
Court for one. Instead of outlawing sex segregation on buses altogether, it has
left the back door open, literally and figuratively, turning buses into war
zones and leaving women to face lynch mobs filled with a renewed sense of
entitlement. It’s the police, who strive for expediency and order instead of
enforcing the law. It is our minister of Transportation, who made a promise he
couldn’t keep that no woman would be forced by violence to sit in the back of
buses. It his fellow government ministers who pander to religious extremists in
the name of political expediency all the while happy to cover their tracks with
paeans to cultural diversity, as if the Jewish religion were some exotic cult
whose members have customs we have never before encountered.
And it’s our
sorry form of coalition government that allows little parties to redraw at will
all our social, religious and cultural red lines, moving them ever forward and
beyond until they are barely visible.
But I’m happy to note that the
accumulation of ultra-Orthodox outrages has finally, finally caught up with
them, leading to a real paradigm shift in thinking. The majority in Israel is
fed up and the usual haredi whine that “the public is being incited against us”
isn’t working anymore.
I too used to subscribe to the comforting idea
that it was only a small number of haredi extremists involved in the bullying
and abuse of women, the silent majority disapproving from afar, cowed into
I’m no longer comfortable with that idea, which is sounding
sickeningly similar to the liberal contention, all facts to the contrary, that
Islam is a religion of peace.
If there really is a silent majority of
haredim who disapprove of spitting on little girls who wear sandals without
stockings or humiliating women who refuse to be invisible, then let’s see them
open their mouths and say so for once. After all, as we have seen numerous times
in the past, who better than haredim know how to gather thousands when they want
to voice opinions on subjects that matter to them?