Separate isn’t equal

Our society’s pluralism doesn’t mean a license for some to humiliate women.

February 3, 2010 21:15
3 minute read.
Separate isn’t equal

haredim 88. (photo credit: )

Earlier this week, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz attempted one of the more incredible feats of verbal acrobatics to have been featured in our public-affairs arena.

In an affidavit to the Supreme Court, he sought to somehow keep gender-segregation on given bus lines, while at the same time refraining from according it official sanction. He stipulated that the segregation – on what are known as “mehadrin lines,” largely serving haredi neighborhoods – is not mandatory and that the state tolerates it so long as it remains voluntary.

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In essence, Katz strives to somehow not upset the wobbly, legally dubious status quo. Patently he hopes against hope not to alienate or aggravate any population sector.

The problem is that officialdom cannot wish this problem away. The segregation, which has unofficially been practiced for years – mostly in areas of Jerusalem and Bnei Brak, but also on certain lines between cities with significant haredi populations – is being scrutinized by the High Court of Justice, where ad hoc improvisations may not pass legal muster.

The mehadrin buses are a prime example of how temporary broadminded arrangements become willy-nilly institutionalized and quasi-compulsory.

IT ALL began at the turn of the millennium, when the practice on some Jerusalem lines was to also allow boarding via the back door, so that women who wished to sit in the rear could enter there directly, with males using the front door.

Over time, however, women who did not abide by the unwritten rule were hassled and even bullied. Hence what purported to be a voluntary separation, in fact, infringed on the rights of those not inclined to subscribe to it.

Haredi proponents of this segregation argue that the majority cannot inflict its cultural preferences upon them and that minority customs should also be respected. That is all very true.

The question, though, is where minority conventions prevail. They can doubtlessly predominate in private spaces, but they cannot oblige the majority in the public domain. Even those buses plying routes running chiefly through haredi areas are nevertheless public conveyances. Public transport, moreover, is heavily subsidized by taxpayers, most of whom are not haredi and shoulder a disproportionally high tax burden in any case.

In other words, public transport – regardless of the particular route – belongs to us all. Coercing any of us to capitulate to sectarian restrictions should be a non-starter in principle.

This includes “behavior-directing” notices, to which Katz acquiesces. These request passengers to abide by the separate seating arrangements “voluntarily.” The disincentive for women to refuse such requests is the sure realization that they will thereby trigger a ruckus. The desire to avoid commotion naturally results in a surrender of rights.

A free society cannot countenance what amounts to a potential injustice to women. The rights of those who are liable to be wronged must override the rights of others to cause that wrong.

Viable alternatives exist for those who cannot countenance close proximity to the opposite sex on buses. They can avoid public transport. They can charter private buses. But they cannot dictate to others. Nor can they require others to avoid “their” lines, because these aren’t their lines.

Were the mehadrin routes costlier, an extenuating case might have been made for special perks, like separate seating. Yet the opposite is true. Vexingly, mehadrin inter-city lines are cheaper, offering segregationists an additional benefit at the expense of taxpayers whose freedom on the lines they fund is restricted. Lower fares are sure to attract non-haredi passengers, who then feel compelled to follow decrees not of their choice.

The haredim, who are so leery of non-segregated public transport, need to ask themselves what they would do abroad. Do haredim in New York or London use public transport? If so, haredim here should do likewise, without resort to dogmatic impositions. Or they can travel by other means. What haredim accept overseas, where they cannot employ political extortion, should be their standard here too.

Our society’s pluralism doesn’t mean a license for some to humiliate women (not necessarily of their own communities). The live-and-let-live forbearance, which haredim demand, must work both ways, or they will superfluously foment resentment for which they will only have themselves to blame.

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