It is hard to imagine that segregation on buses exists anywhere in the democratic world in the 21st century. But Israel is an exception: For close to 10 years Egged, the country's public transportation company, has been running gender segregated lines not only on buses that go through haredi neighborhoods, but also on intercity routes. Israel must put an end to this abomination, which not only harms all women in the country - regardless of religious persuasion - but also makes a mockery of the principle of democracy which sustains life in this country. Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz has until the end of this month to do so.
The introduction of gender discrimination on buses started quietly at the beginning of the millennium, when a Jerusalem-based group of haredim demanded that Egged provide separate seating on buses passing through religious sections of town. Despite the predictable furor raised by Egged's capitulation - justified by the need to address the sensitivities of its religious clientele - the practice continues to this very day. Fifty-five such lines are now in full operation throughout the country.
Israel's unique form of segregation is as shocking as it is familiar from other instances elsewhere: Women are required to enter through the back door of the bus, seat themselves in the rear and dress modestly. If they balk (as many Orthodox women have), they are threatened verbally and even physically by self-appointed enforcers who monitor implementation.
These bus routes are known as mehadrin lines, as if their presentation as punctiliously kosher can in some way attenuate the injustice they represent. To add insult to injury, not only do many of these lines pass through distinctly non-Orthodox sections of major cities, but they actually charge lower fares than their "integrated" counterparts.
PROTEST AGAINST this affront to personal and public sensibilities has come from a variety of quarters. The first and most persistent voices raised against this new form of discriminatory harassment have been those of Orthodox women. Kolech - The Religious Women's Forum - tried to actively desegregate the bus lines by entering at the front of the bus, encountering heaps of abuse, humiliation and insults in return. Author Naomi Ragen, herself a part of the haredi community, was instrumental in launching a relentless and scathing public campaign against this latest manifestation of gender separation. These courageous latter-day replicas of Rosa Parks then proceeded to recruit other partners for a broad public campaign.
These include, first and foremost, IRAC (the Israel Religious Action Center of the Reform movement), the new group of young Jerusalem religious and secular activists, Yerushalmim, which now has a representative on the Jerusalem municipal council, and distinctly pluralist groups such as Hemdat (the Association for Freedom of Religion in Israel) and the Meretz party. Women's organizations, including Na'amat and the Israel Women's Network, have been at the forefront of this action. And they have been joined by a wide array of religious and secular public figures ranging from Rabbi Michael Melchior and Prof. Alice Shalvi to Natan Zach and A.B. Yehoshua. This broad coalition, representing Israelis from all walks of life, demonstrated, petitioned, lobbied and appealed to common sense to stop this practice - to no avail.
The public outcry raised over gender segregation on buses has fallen on deaf ears. Too many prime ministers - from Ehud Barak and Ariel Sharon to Ehud Olmert and now Binyamin Netanyahu - fearful of upsetting past and potential coalition partners, chose simply not to interfere. What could have been resolved by a simple, easily sustainable, government decision dragged out interminably until, once all other avenues had been exhausted, it was finally taken to the High Court of Justice.
The petition to strike down gender segregation on buses was filed by IRAC and Naomi Ragen in 2006. In a somewhat surprising move, in 2007 the High Court instructed the Transportation Ministry to set up a professional committee to examine the issue. Two months ago, the committee issued its report, in which it stated clearly that mehadrin lines run by a public company cannot be legitimated in this modern day and age. It did, however, suggest that the principle of freedom of choice for those who wish to sit separately could be adopted as long as no coercion was involved.
The High Court has instructed the minister of transportation to report back on what action he plans to take in light of the committee's recommendations. The deadline is December 27. Two long months have passed without any indication of whether the government is, finally, going to halt this more than bizarre form of gender discrimination.
IN THE past few weeks, pressure has mounted on Minister Katz to adopt the committee's findings. Write-in campaigns initiated by the New Israel Fund, the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and Israeli feminist groups have in common a definitive call for immediate desegregation. The rationales that have guided those who have joined these efforts, however, differ substantially.
Some argue that gender equality is debased by officially-backed discrimination of this sort. A few go further: They suggest that any continuation of this practice perpetuates male hegemony which, in any event, is rife in Israeli society. Others cast their objection in broader terms, claiming that the norm of full equality for all citizens must be maintained on matters of gender as well as religion, age, nationality and country of origin. Any deviation from this principle inevitably undercuts the democratic ethos.
There are also those who maintain that women, too, have the right to empower themselves by sitting separately to avoid harassment and discomfort - but not at public expense. And several have cautioned that Israel, already at the bottom of the US State Department's list of free countries when it comes to questions of religion and state, can ill afford to entrench in fact what has become the hallmark of the Taliban in Afghanistan and the ayatollahs in Iran.
For these and other reasons, the vast majority of Israelis have come out against the appalling notion that women can be forced to ride in separate sections of buses (and in the future, by extension, trains or airplanes). A Jerusalem Post write-in survey, however unscientific, is indicative: Only 5.7 percent support such a move. But it is not enough to express dismay, disagree or even actively demonstrate. Unless this segregation against women ceases entirely, the human rights of every single citizen are compromised.
Transportation in Israel is a public commodity. Like every other public good, it belongs to all segments of Israel's increasingly diverse society. The minister of transportation, as the representative of all Israelis, can delay no longer. Gender desegregation on buses - indeed everywhere - is the order of the day.
The writer is president of the New Israel Fund.