Supreme Court may allow segregated buses

IRAC says court "believed the haredim;" decision may authorize "voluntary separation," as long as riders aren't forced into separate seating.

jerusalem bus comic 311 (photo credit: Rinat Gilboa)
jerusalem bus comic 311
(photo credit: Rinat Gilboa)
Will the Supreme Court allow sex-segregated buses to continue operating?
Supreme Court Judge Elyakim Rubinstein said in court Sunday that the judges were leaning toward accepting the recommendations of a special Transportation Ministry committee established to regulate the operation of what are known as “mehadrin” buses.
The committee was formed in 2008 in response to a petition against the separation arrangement by the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) and others.
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The committee noted that while the separation is forbidden by law, it could be allowed to continue on a voluntary basis, as long as bus riders weren’t coerced into sitting separately.
“We have read all the reactions of the sides and are inclined to go along with the recommendations adopted by the minister, meaning the professionally decided on effort to balance the sides,” said Rubinstein. “We are aware that the parties have reservations and are of the opinion that the conclusions [of the committee] are balanced.”
The High Court has been deliberating the petition since 2007, when it was filed against the Transportation Ministry and the Egged Bus Cooperative.
The petitioners claim the mehadrin lines are illegal because they discriminate against women, restrict freedom of movement and fail to protect citizens from religious coercion.
The lines were originally launched at the beginning of the past decade in response to demands by haredim, who are heavy users of public transportation, and who claimed that the often overcrowded buses were leading to what they said was forbidden intermingling between men and women.
The separation was supposed to be on a voluntary basis, whereby both the front and back doors of the buses would be open for boarding and people could choose where they wanted to sit.
But the petitioners found that in many cases the separation was vigorously enforced by extremist, selfappointed watchdogs from the haredi community. They cited cases where women who sat in “male territory,” at the front of the bus, were intimidated and bullied into moving to the back or getting off the bus altogether.
The committee’s recommendations, which were adopted in February by Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz, stipulated that there was no legal way to enforce separation, but that it was possible to maintain an arrangement that would allow voluntary separation for those who choose it.
According to the recommendations, by opening both the front and rear doors of the bus for boarding, passengers could decide through which door they wanted to board, and either honor the separation arrangement or not.
The Masorti (Conservative) Movement of Israel’s executive director Yizhar Hess spoke out against “an attitude to exclude women from the public realm in the name of multi-cultural values, i.e. assisting minority communities to safeguard their culture, when that defense is interlocked with degradation,” and called the separation on buses “a contemptuous phenomenon.”
The national-religious amicus curiae to the petition – Kolech, Ne’emanei Torah Ve’avodah (The Torah and Labor Faithful), the Ya’acov Herzog Center and others called on the court not to accept the committee’s recommendation to allow the back door to continue functioning as a “women’s entrance” to the buses, which would allow the separation to be forced upon women.
They also said that the Transportation Ministry’s claim that the mehadrin lines would serve as a “pilot” for a future plan to have the back doors open for boarding on all buses is “problematic” and fusion of two unrelated issues.
“At IRAC’s behest, the committee’s conclusions prohibiting any form of separation were fully accepted. The Transportation Ministry must ensure that there is no coercion or violence against women. The Reform Movement will continue to monitor the implementation of the decision,” read a guarded announcement by IRAC, the legal and advocacy arm of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, following the court discussion.
Speaking with The Jerusalem Post, IRAC’s executive director Anat Hoffman explained the complexity of the court’s apparently impending ruling.
“On the fundamental level, the court accepted the committee’s recommendations, which state that separation in public transportation is illegal,” she said. “You cannot, of course, force people to sit next to one another.
But in practice, in the buses, there is a dispute over whether the seating arrangements are indeed voluntary.
“The justices believed the haredi representatives, who told the court that the Eda Haredit took great measures to curb the violence against women who are ‘out of line,’ they said they had ads in the newspapers. We saw no documentation of such ads,” Hoffman noted.
“The judges also chose to believe Egged that every complaint [about violence against women] will be [dealt with], they don’t have the resources to do that.
“So as far as the practical level goes, there is room for disappointment, since the moment it is agreed that the back door will open, a haredi women has no choice but to embark from there,” she added.