A special committee appointed by the Transportation Ministry recommended on Tuesday conducting a yearlong trial during which passengers on "mehadrin" public bus lines would be allowed to enter from either the front or the rear doors, so those who wished to maintain gender separation could do so.
However, the committee stressed that the separation of the genders must be solely on a voluntary basis, that the passengers riding on these buses may not impose it coercively and that bus drivers would be responsible for intervening to prevent coercion if it arose.
The 11-person committee, headed by Transportation Ministry deputy director-general Alex Langer, was charged with examining the urban and inter-urban public bus system arrangements for the haredi population.
It was established in the wake of a petition to the High Court of Justice filed by several women, including author Naomi Ragen, as well as the Israel Religious Action Center of the Progressive Movement (Reform), against the establishment of dozens of gender-separated bus lines over the past decade to serve the haredi community.
The petitioners called on the government to examine the issue and objectively determine how many such bus lines were necessary and how they should operate. They also called on the government to prohibit haredim from coercing passengers to abide by their customs.
In its report, the committee explained that the underlying principle determining its recommendation was that all passenger buses serving the general public belonged to the public sphere, and every member of the public had the right to use each bus in accordance with basic human rights such as equality and freedom of movement.
The corollary of the principle established by the committee was that buses serving the haredi population were an integral part of the public transportation system. The mehadrin buses were not a separate transportation system granted to the haredi population that could therefore impose on passengers whatever rules it wished, even if those rules violated basic human rights, the committee said.
"We got the impression that the haredi population that supports the arrangement and uses these bus lines treats them as lines 'belonging' to the haredi population; that is, that these lines are not part of the public transportation system, but were withdrawn from it for the benefit of a specific population," the committee members wrote. "This arrangement, which developed and expanded without direction, supervision, assessment or significant involvement on the part of the Transportation Ministry, created a feeling among groups within the haredi population that the ministry was obliged to provide them with bus lines that accommodated their way of life.
"This, in turn, led to attempts on their part to force these arrangements on passengers who did not agree to them. The voluntary dimension of the arrangement was not given expression and... is not even known to a substantial portion of the haredi population that uses these buses," the committee continued.
According to the recommendation, the buses that have been classified as mehadrin will not carry any special identification. The only difference between them and non-mehadrin buses will be that both the rear doors and the front doors will open to admit passengers, and bus fares will be taken at either door, so that if a woman agrees to set herself apart from the men and sit at the back of the bus (or vice versa), she may enter by the rear door.
However, no passenger is obliged to accept this arrangement, and anyone can sit wherever he or she wants. Furthermore, there will be no restrictions on the type of clothing women may wear on these buses.
Ragen said in response that Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz should bravely accept the conclusions of the committee, "so that we know that we are living in a democratic state and not in Iran and Afghanistan."
It was a happy day for women and a major victory for freedom and liberty, she continued. However, she said she was concerned that Katz, a Likud member, would cave in to haredi political pressure. Two haredi parties - Shas and United Torah Judaism - are members of the government coalition and might attempt to prevent implementation of the committee's recommendations.
"I believe that if the haredim have special needs, they should be allowed to run their own bus lines," said Ragen. "And Minister Katz should help them do this. But haredi busing should not enjoy government subsidies."
Ragen, whose bestselling novels often deal with haredi society and the tensions between strict social restrictions and the desire for freedom, said that speaking as a religious woman, there was no halachic problem with mixed seating of men and women on buses.
"That was the opinion of Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, may his memory be a blessing, who is considered one of the most important rabbis in the US in recent decades," she said.
Feinstein's rulings are not always accepted in Israel, and many leading Israeli halachic authorities have supported separate seating.
Meanwhile, haredi activists attacked the committee's decision.
Menachem Kenig, chairman of the Mehadrin Lines Committee in the Holy Land, said that the committee's decision was based on inaccurate information.
"We never asked Egged to enforce segregation between men and women," said Kenig. "In the vast majority of situations, passengers sit in separate seats of their own free will, just like they do at weddings or other public meetings.
"In fact, we have always been opposed to Egged's involvement in forcibly segregating men and women," he went on. "All we asked was that women would be allowed to enter the bus from the side door so that a situation is not created in which men and women crowd onto the bus together and push and shove each other like a jungle scene."
Kenig said lines that had already adopted segregated seating would continue to do so.
"They cannot force mixed seating on us," he said.
The Israel Religious Action Center welcomed the report.
"The committee accepted most of our arguments and determined that the operation of the 'mehadrin' lines contravened the law and that the separation of men and women in public transportation is humiliating and causes harm to women," said attorney Einat Horowitz, who is representing the organization in the High Court petition.
The court convened for a hearing on Tuesday morning, but decided to give all the parties to the petition time to study and respond to the committee hearings. The first will be Katz, who has 30 days to do so.