A left-leaning umbrella organization active in fighting for the rights of non-Orthodox Jewish expression and Arab equality has begun a campaign to encourage haredi women to protest against gender segregation on buses and in other public places.
"In recent years, discrimination against women has emerged predominately in public buses, where women are forced to sit in the back; at holy sites such as the Western Wall, where women are not allowed to practice religion as they wish; and on sidewalks, where they are even not allowed to walk certain pavements in Jerusalem," the New Israel Fund said in a statement on Monday.
The fund has facilitated the creation of a hotline called Hashmi'eini (make your voice heard to me), taken from a verse in the Song of Songs, as well as a blog on the Internet forum Tapuz that encourages haredi women to complain about negative incidents that they have witnessed or have experienced firsthand.
The organizations involved with the hotline ((02) 671-1911) and the blog prefer to remain anonymous for fear that haredi women will be scared off if they know who is behind the initiative.
"Since the hotline was launched this week, we have had six callers, five of them men, who have complained about various incidents," said A., who helps manage the hotline and blog.
"One woman who identified herself as haredi said that she got on a bus with heavy grocery bags," said A.
"The woman said that she tried her best to move to the back of the bus, because she really wanted to respect the separation. She thought that she had passed the demarcation line, but a group of men yelled at her to move further back."
A. said that the men who called mainly complained about the use of violence by haredi male passengers to enforce the segregation.
There have been numerous incidents in which men have used violence, including beatings, to enforce segregation.
In a recent incident in Ashdod roles were reversed. A haredi man confronted a woman who sat at the front of the bus, and she hit him with pepper spray. The woman was arrested.
The NIF and the other organizations were unable to arrange for The Jerusalem Post
to talk with haredi women who are opposed to the segregation or the way it is enforced. This was due to the unwillingness of the women to come forward, and to time constraints.
In contrast, Riki Shoshan, a veteran female journalist and the daughter of a deceased Hassidic leader, said that instead of trying to fight against gender segregation on buses and in other public places the NIF should "praise" it.
"Anyone who has ever traveled on a packed bus, especially in the summer when it is very hot and people are thrown together, will admit that it is a good thing to separate men and women," said Shoshan.
"It humiliates me to have my modesty compromised by being shoved into a man on the bus. Haredi women have different standards for what is acceptable than the secular public. It is an affront to us to be in such situations."
Shoshan explained that the vast majority of haredim do not have their own cars and are therefore completely dependent on buses.
In response to allegations that haredi men were using violence to enforce segregation, Shoshan said that the Torah totally forbids such behavior.
"Moshe killed an Egyptian for just raising his hand to strike a Jew," she said. "In every society there are good fish and bad fish. People who use violence are bad."
Asked if she felt her rights were being curtailed by being forced to sit in the back of the bus, Shoshan replied that she did not.
"It is for a woman's own good to be separated from men. And there are a lot of activities which men do alone, while there are things that women like to do by themselves."
However, A. said there was nothing in Halacha that said such strict measures of segregation had to be applied.
"Where does it say that a man cannot sit down next to his wife on the bus?" asked A., who defined herself as Orthodox but not haredi.
She added that the goal of the hotline and the blog was not necessarily to bring about a change in segregation policies but to give women the opportunity to share their experiences with someone sympathetic.
The NIF said that its campaign includes ads and posters placed on buses that pass through haredi neighborhoods, and leaflets handed out in strategic locations where haredi women gather, such at mikvaot [ritual baths] and the women's sections of synagogues.
In addition, posters placed in haredi neighborhoods call on women to use the hotline.
The NIF plans to distribute leaflets that include gifts for the women, who will find them in synagogues all over Jerusalem.
The campaigners are considering ways to further expand the campaign to the Internet and other digital media.
Asked if the campaign wasn't interference in internal haredi issues, Itzhak Shanan, director of NIF's communications and public education in Israel, said, "The issue of gender separation - when conducted in a discriminatory, violent way - is an infringement of women's rights.
"Therefore, it is not an internal issue of haredi society. It becomes the business of the entire Israeli society. The present initiative is not fundamentally different from the NIF's decision to fund the establishment of a rape crisis center for religious women."
Shanan noted that there were diverse opinions on gender segregation within the haredi society, with hassidic movements representing the most uncompromising position.
"Today, the haredi woman who suffers from violence has no place to turn inside the haredi community for help. There is a scare campaign stifling all opposition. Therefore, the hotline is essential because it is the only address for women who suffer from separation and are opposed to it.
"Another reason why this issue is relevant to all walks of Israeli society is because it has an impact on everyone. There are plenty of people who ride segregated buses and are not haredi.
"In Beit Shemesh, a lynch was barely avoided when a young woman boarded a segregated bus and sat in the wrong part."