Jerusalem light rail with Egged bus 311.
(photo credit: Abir Sultan)
Last week I decided the time had finally come to once again board a No. 40 bus
in Jerusalem. I was not looking forward to it. The last time I tried to take a
seat on that bus, in 2004, my simple ride home quickly turned into a nightmarish
journey of abuse and humiliation. During the entire ride, a sweating,
overbearing young man dressed in the black garb of a haredi (ultra-Orthodox)
yeshiva student hung over me, demanding I move to the back, where he was
convinced women belonged. I ignored him, but when I finally reached my stop, I
found myself shaken and in tears, vowing never to return.
published my experiences in The Jerusalem Post, other women soon came forward
with their own horror stories. Spearheaded by the Israel Religious Action
Center, we took the battle against discriminatory practices on public
transportation to the Supreme Court, suing the bus companies Egged and Dan as
well as the Transportation Ministry.
While I willingly joined in, I
sometimes found the proceedings less than encouraging.
committee set up by court order to study the problem took a year and a half
longer than scheduled to finish its work. At long last, it finally stated that
“every bus passenger be allowed to sit anywhere there is a vacant seat... and
that no public buses be designated as sex-segregated.”
in bed with his haredi coalition partners, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz
didn’t agree. With true chutzpa, he recommended the opposite: that buses put up
signs encouraging women to “voluntarily” sit in the back, and that there be a
trial period to see how many women were abused. Luckily, this infuriating
exercise in capitulation to religious extremists in the name of political
expediency was rejected by the court.
Still, during the whole process, I
never felt particularly encouraged by the judges, who bent over backwards to
exude neutrality. And thus on January 5, when the final verdict was issued, I
found myself both dumbfounded and overjoyed, understanding for the first time
what had really been going on inside kippawearing Judge Rubinstein’s
“Woe to ears that hear such things,” he wrote in his decision
concerning my affidavit.
“Where is the respect for human beings that
overrides ‘even the prohibitions in the Torah?’ (Babylonian Talmud, Brachot
I was particularly stunned at the following story brought down by
Judge Rubinstein, quoting Rabbi Shmuel Greenfeld, who wrote: “Rabbi Shlomo
Zalman Auerbach was sitting next to my cousin on a bus when a woman got on. The
Rav turned to my cousin and said: ‘Who is giving up his seat, you or me?’ My
cousin got up and the woman sat down next to the Rav.”
itself, though, left something to be desired. It was basically live and let live
– everyone could sit where they pleased, even on so-called “Mehadrin” buses;
passenger harassment was a criminal offense; and drivers should police the
situation. They gave their solution’s workability a one year trial
With the end of the trial period only months away, I was curious
as to how all this was working out on the 40 bus route. I wanted to see with my
own eyes if our long struggle had been worth it, and if the landmark legal
decision for human rights in Israel had achieved anything of practical
It wasn’t an easy decision. As a religious woman facing the
self-scrutiny and repentance required by the month of Elul, I asked myself if it
was proper to risk triggering verbal abuse or physical violence. On the other
hand, wasn’t it better for me to deliberately check out the situation and
publicize the results, rather than allow some poor, unsuspecting tourist or Tel
Avivian to unknowingly step into the situation? I admit, my heart skipped a beat
when I saw the 40 bus pull up. An unpleasant sense of déjà vu enveloped me as I
stepped inside, sitting down in exactly the same spot I’d chosen seven years
before. The first thing I did was look around for the court-ordered sign
reminding passengers they were free to choose their seats. It was nowhere to be
found. Xeroxed and merely Scotch-taped inside buses, it had obviously been
I glanced at the driver, wondering if he, too, was going to
have the strength of Scotch tape when and if I needed him.
So far, I
didn’t. The lone haredi man who had boarded with me had taken his seat and
watched me take mine without a word of protest. The bus soon continued to its
next stop, the one in which seven years previously all my problems had started.
I glimpsed a large group of bearded haredi men in black hats and black suits
toting packages and religious texts crowding the front door getting ready to
I sat there feeling vulnerable, exposed and helpless. Judge
Rubinstein was far away.
One after another the men got on, glancing in my
direction, then moving past. Not one of them stopped. Not a single one directed
a word to me.
With each stop, the bus grew more and
more crowded, until the entire front section was almost completely filled,
except for the double seat facing me, which remained empty. I felt a twinge of
regret that my presence was preventing it from being used. In fact, if someone
had asked me politely to move, I would probably have even agreed.
one did. In fact, no one said a word, or bothered me in any way. It was almost
like being on a normal public bus, I thought, the kind I was used to taking
Anxious to be done with my experiment and conscious that at
any point in my journey the story could take a dangerous or unpleasant turn, I
felt a sense of relief as we neared my final stop.
When I exited, I
suddenly remembered the words that had been shouted at me so many years before:
“There are laws in this country!” I smiled, thinking: There certainly are. While
far from perfect, perhaps the decision of our Supreme Court justices clarifying
the basic rules of conduct on public buses to all the citizens of Israel has
done its work in helping us to all breathe easier as we board our public buses.
Perhaps this is what a modest victory looks like for all sides.
way back home, I watched a 40 bus pull up to a crowded stop in Geula,
men exiting from the front doors, all the women from the back, only to
and brush against each other in the crowded streets.
And later that day
when I switched on my computer, I read about new immigrant Rachel
recent harassment by a hysterical female passenger on a Beit Shemesh bus
unfortunate experience of a woman on a No. 56 bus who had to ask for the
driver’s protection, only to be told by him (and later, by an Egged
that it was forbidden for drivers to interfere.
The journey isn’t over,
but we are certainly further along.