egged bus 298.88.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski )
Down in Selma, Alabama, American presidential hopefuls were commemorating the 42nd anniversary of Bloody Sunday, when civil rights marchers were beaten by state troopers as they tried to cross the Edmund Pettus Bridge in a movement to end discrimination in schools and at lunch counters and on buses.
And there I was, speaking to women's groups about the greatness of Israel and answering questions about women having to sit at the back of the bus in Jerusalem.
Who could have imagined it in 2007?
The relegation of women to the back of the bus on so-called religious routes was covered widely in all the Jewish papers in the cities I visited, and raised concerns about the direction of life in Jerusalem.
Rightfully so. Public transportation reflects the values of a society. And so it has been in Israel.
Since the newly merged bus cooperative was named by national poet Chaim Nachman Bialik, its mission has been to implement a national agenda, servicing far-flung outposts - remunerative or not - and providing reliable transportation at affordable rates.
Which of us veteran immigrants can't remember being moved by the mix of Jews from all lands and religious approaches sitting together on an Egged bus? The prayed-for ingathering of the exiles on wheels.
Which of us didn't admire those Egged drivers who got back in their buses and drove their routes while terrorists targeted them and their passengers? In a country in which different segments of the population increasingly live in separate enclaves, buses continue to cross ethnic and religious lines. Buses are more widely used by less affluent members of the population, particularly women.
You might argue that providing the segregated service for a segment of the population is analogous to the cooperative's commitment to pick up a lone passenger in the new farming communities in the Arava, but you'd be wrong. Claiming, as some have, that seclusion in the back of the bus is a perk and that women prefer using a rear exit is about as convincing as arguing that blacks actually preferred sitting among their friends in the back so that they wouldn't have to endure the patronizing sneers of white passengers.
NOR IS a public bus a synagogue or a swimming pool, where many women seek separation from men to enhance spirituality, or because they're wearing so little clothing. Ironically, it's not teenagers with halter tops whom men are sending to the back of the bus, but modestly dressed women with babies in their arms who live in their own neighborhoods.
True, even a burka can arouse lust. I concede, as some have argued, that scientists have proven that men really might have dysfunction in not being able to control their wandering eyes and thoughts. According to Yale and Berkeley-educated physician and neuroscientist Dr. Louann Brizendine, author of the recently published best-seller The Female Brain, men's gray matter is "marinated in testosterone" which shrinks the communication center, reduces the hearing cortex and enlarges the part that processes sex. Thoughts about sex enter a woman's brain once every couple of days but enter a man's brain about once every minute, Brizendine's research reveals.
Despite this supposedly faulty raw material, I believe that education and socialization can succeed in building self-control. If not, we're in deep trouble. Any woman who lives outside a cloister comes into contact with men, whether they are bank tellers or electricians, waiting in line in the health fund or the post office, flying on an airplane or shopping in the open-air market. For the most part, the men I have daily dealings with seem to be able to live full, respectful and even admirable lives despite or perhaps because of their contact with women.
Nor is a system that enforces separation foolproof against indecorous behavior. The road rage of men who verbally and physically attack women for not yielding to segregation is symptomatic of a sense of entitlement felt by men who have been brought up to feel superior. Some women feel compelled to prop up such attitudes, but no one can convince me that this is an approach to be emulated.
Even those who fear for men's ability to achieve self-control shouldn't make women bear the burden of men's struggle. Those vainly seeking greater self-control can keep their eyes in a book, or carry personal blinders.
In a national company, transportation decisions aren't made on profit alone. The only special seating arrangements the national bus cooperative should be providing are those for the physically challenged. Our buses should be kneeling, not in prayer, but to allow easier boarding.
The private sector can do whatever it wants, but for those who insist on separate seating, wouldn't a barrier down the middle be a more equitable and less condescending division? Egged has an historical vehicle museum in Holon, lovingly collecting the oldest buses, one nicknamed the Yiddish "Tepele" because it was a pot on wheels, and boarded-up buses from the War of Independence. Segregated buses have no place in this proud tradition.