Court scraps ‘mehadrin’ buses

ByDAN IZENBERG, JONAH MANDEL
January 6, 2011 13:36

But not clear that ruling will truly put an end to gender separation for passengers; IRAC praises ruling but says "court left back door open."




Egged Buses in Jerusalem

buses 311. (photo credit:Marc Israel Sellem)

The High Court of Justice on Thursday officially abolished the so-called “mehadrin” public buses operated by the Egged bus company, but it is far from clear that the ruling will put an end to the gender separation arrangement in which female passengers are frequently forced to sit at the back of the bus.

According to Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, “There is a common understanding today that the operation of the buses as they were run until 2007 is forbidden. This is the current opinion of the Transportation Minister and, as the regulatory body, that is what he will instruct the public bus companies. For those who are not clear on this, we will say that a public transportation operator (like anyone else) may not tell, request or order women to sit in a specific place on the bus just because they are women, or to tell them how to dress, and they are entitled to sit anywhere they wish.”

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Thursday’s ruling came in the wake of a petition originally filed by the Israel Religious Action Center and five women, including Israeli English- language author Naomi Ragen.

The women charged that there were no formal arrangements or conditions for the operation of these special bus lines and that, as passengers on these buses, they had been harassed by haredim for insisting on sitting in the front section.

The Egged and Dan bus companies began to run gender- separated buses in the early 1990s to compete with private bus companies who catered to the haredi community.

In the decade between the publication of a report by the Langenthal Committee in 1997 and the filing of the petition in 2007, the number of bus routes proliferated and spread from urban to intercity routes.

According to a report published on October 26, 2009, by the Langer Committee, which was established on the instructions of the high court to investigate the mehadrin buses, “the arrangement grew and spread without direction, supervision, assessment or significant intervention by the Transportation Ministry and created a sense among haredi groups that it was the obligation of the ministry to provide bus lines suited to their way of life. This, in turn, let to attempts to impose the seating arrangement on those who did not adhere to it.”

The committee recognized that there was a clash between the right to religious freedom and the right of women to equality and freedom from discrimination. It proposed a system whereby all elements of coercion would be removed from the mehadrin buses, including the signs on the front windows declaring that they were gender-separated buses and signs inside the bus urging the passengers to sit separately although they stipulated that it was not a mandatory but a voluntary arrangement.

From now on, the arrangement would have to be totally voluntary, the committee declared. Anyone who did not want to honor it would be free to ignore it and neither the passengers nor the bus driver could order, pressure or threaten them into doing so.

The court accepted the recommendations of the committee and, eventually, so did reluctant Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz. The court then handed down a decision to conduct an experiment for one year to see whether a truly voluntary arrangement was viable. One key aspect of the experiment was that both men and women could enter the bus from the back door, an arrangement that does not apply to “regular” buses.

Thursday’s ruling was based on the results of the experiment.

The court officially declared the mehadrin system dead and instructed Egged (as Dan no longer runs gender-separated buses) to continue the experiment for another year.

In order to make clear that these buses are not to be coercive in any way, the court called on the company to put up the following sign on each vehicle: “Every passenger is permitted to sit in any seat he wishes… Harassing a passenger regarding this matter could constitute a criminal violation.”

But the court also found that during the first year of the experiment, there were many instances in which haredim had bothered passengers who had refused to heed the “purely voluntary” arrangement. In one third of the cases where a supervisor boarded the bus and deliberately sat on the “wrong” side, passengers made comments to him.

However, the court expressed the hope that as haredim came to understand that the mehadrin system was dead, they would get used to the voluntary one.

Furthermore, the justices maintained that there had been insufficient enforcement of the new arrangement and hoped that this situation would improve during the coming year.

The second year of the experiment will go into effect in 30 days.

Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) attorney Einat Horowitz, praised the court decision which “for the first time determines… that separation is unacceptable discrimination, prohibited by law.

“The verdict anchors what is obvious. Every woman is free to choose her seat on a public bus and is entitled to egalitarian treatment that respects her choice.”

IRAC director Anat Hoffman, however, noted that she was concerned that the court “has left the back door open” because it continued the arrangement where women entered by the back door of the bus. “Women who have been bullied into sitting in the back of the bus, have been trained to sit there. I want that door closed. If men and women enter by the front door, chances are the women will take the first available seat at their own convenience.”

Hoffman added that during this next trial year, “we will have 1,000 freedom riders riding the buses and seeing to what extent they were sitting where they genuinely wanted to.”

Meretz MK Nitzan Horowitz called the decision “a victory for freedom and sanity in Israel…The bus companies and Transportation Ministry must act swiftly in accordance with the ruling. Israel is not, and shall not be, Iran.”

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