The most excitement on Egged’s line 56 in Ramat Shlomo was without a doubt
emanating from its amiable bus driver.
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“What, am I going to be on TV
tonight?” he grinned as the last of the reporters, camera men, photographers,
Knesset members and activists boarded his vehicle in the Jerusalem haredi
neighborhood on a hot, quiet Wednesday morning.
The group – which was the
bulk of the passengers for most of the ride – was marking the launch of the
“Grab A Spot” initiative, in which female students at the Hebrew University ride
public buses in haredi areas to ensure that gender segregation is not being
forced upon female passengers, who are allowed by law to sit in any part of the
bus, and not be restricted to the rear, as is the norm on these
Six months ago, the High Court of Justice ruled “public
transportation operators 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,” thus effectively
abolishing the so-called Mehadrin public buses. At the same time, women were
permitted to board the bus from the middle door, and even punch their own
tickets with a perforator tied nearby that exit point.
The January ruling
came in the wake of a petition originally filed five years ago by the Israel
Religious Action Center (IRAC), and five women – including Israeli
English-language author Naomi Ragen, who 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.
If that Wednesday trip from
Ramat Shlomo to Rehov Bar Ilan (which involved changing buses midway) could be
considered indicative, it would seem as though the ruling is being
Indeed, signs noting that people were entitled to sit where
they wished were posted in the appropriate places above the doors, and a woman
was sitting with her daughter in the front right seats of the second bus the
delegation boarded. Another woman with a bright pink shirt and pants also
boarded the bus with her son as the vehicle approached Rehov Bar Ilan and the
delegation disembarked, using the front door and sitting quite comfortably in
the front section. Nobody so much as gave her and her son a second
“When I get on a bus, I don’t feel like I’m in Iran,” said a
haredi man who identified himself as Shai. Meanwhile, the large group –
including Meretz Mks Nitzan Horovitz and Ilan Gilon, and Kadima MKs Rachel
Adatto, Orit Zuaretz and Nino Abesadze – stood waiting for the bus.
was responding to the claims of the female activists and MKs that gender
segregation on buses was part of a larger trend of radicalization in the haredi
public that was spreading to the general public realm.
“If a woman wants
to sit in front, it is obvious she should be allowed to. The Torah is against
extremity, and prohibits getting off your chair if a woman sits next to you, as
to avoid shaming her.”
Shai noted that the haredi men and women who tell
female passengers to get to the back are an extreme minority, “but they are also
getting more extreme,” he said, beckoning across the street at the group. “The
buses are crowded, wouldn’t a woman rather be among other women? In a mixed bus
they will say they are being harassed. This whole thing is too bad, it brings
division among Jews instead of unity,” he added, most likely referring to the
Tamar Gur, a student of educational
entrepreneurship at the Hebrew University who is part of the “Grab A Spot”
group, noted that it is mainly women who tell her to get to the back of the bus.
Unlike some of the others in her group, Gur was subject to verbal pressure to
move to the back of buses before officially joining the group.
Shacham, who studies literature and is part of the Amirim program at HU, riding
the buses in the haredi areas is an opportunity for dialogue that doesn’t always
“This is dialogue that should have taken place years
ago,” she said.
Asked if the haredim on the buses don’t perceive the
presence of her and other activists as a provocation – not an invitation to
discourse – Shacham said “it really depends on the attitude of the people
involved. We come with a moderate approach, we’re not attacking anyone, or
pressuring them,” she said.
Shacham, who is in charge of the project in
Beit Shemesh, and is Orthodox, noted that there was a definite improvement in
not forcing women to the back of the buses following the court ruling and the
activity of her group and others.
“There has been an order from high
above in the haredi world that they shouldn’t make scenes on buses,” she said,
“because they know they are being watched.
That’s great as far as the
project is concerned.”
IRAC Director Anat Hoffman, whose movement is
supporting “grab a spot,” agreed that there has been an improvement in the past
months, but stressed that there must be efforts made to free the haredi women –
especially the young ones – from the mindset that has been instilled in them
regarding their place in society.
“See them,” she said, pointing at a
small group of girls who boarded the bus from the middle door, and walked to the
back of the vehicle. “They’ve been indoctrinated. It will take about 10 years to
change that mindset,” she said, noting that it has been a decade since the
segregated buses began operating, and five since IRAC filed their court action.
“The verbal and physical abuse focuses on young haredi girls,” she
As the group disembarked, the bus suddenly became
The predominantly haredi passengers exchanged experiences about
their ride in the presence of the lawmakers and media. A young hassidic man
cynically deflected questions about the ride, the separation and, of course, the
“Do you really think I’m going to help you besmirch us?” he asked