Light rail in Jerusalem 311.
(photo credit: Sybil Erlich)
Jerusalem’s residents might soon find road relief. The endless roadwork, the
tedious traffic jams, the unremitting cacophony, dust and inconveniences that
have plagued the capital in recent years appear to be drawing to a close. The
city’s perennially postponed light rail system successfully made its first full
trial run Monday.
By April of next year, God willing, it will be up and
However, the excitement of this historic event, the fruition of
two decades of planning and eight years of building, was dampened somewhat by
comments made by Yair Naveh, CEO of CityPass, the transportation consortium that
built and will operate the light rail. Responding to a reporter’s question,
Naveh acknowledged that his company was considering the option of
gender-segregated mehadrin cars, in which women – through a combination of
social pressure, explicit prodding and even occasional physical violence – are
compelled to sit at the back.
“The train was built to serve everyone...
to create alternatives for everyone,” noted Naveh. “It would not be a problem to
declare every third or fourth car a mehadrin car.”
Sources in the joint
state-municipal body overseeing the project suggested in response that CityPass
concentrate on relieving Jerusalem residents’ suffering by finishing the light
rail once and for all, rather than busying itself with what they termed
In fact, CityPass’s position on mehadrin cars is immensely
relevant – from a financial perspective. Naveh, a businessman, is acutely aware
that the economic success of the light rail depends on the support of the
capital’s growing haredi community.
Jerusalem is Israel’s most populous
city, with 774,000 residents, according to data released in June by the Central
Bureau of Statistics. Almost 150,000 people, or 30 percent of the Jewish
population, are haredim aged 20 or older. In the city’s Jewish elementary
schools, 64% of those enrolled are haredi. And since they tend to use public
transportation more than any other segment of the Jewish population, a haredi
boycott of the light rail would be a devastating, perhaps lethal, blow to the
economic feasibility of the light rail.
The question is whether haredi
prurience, disguised as meticulous adherence to the dictates of Judaism, should
be allowed to dominate Jerusalem’s public spaces even when this prurience has
the backing of market forces.
MUCH HAS changed since Rabbi Moshe
Feinstein (1895- 1986), the most important halachic authority of America,
permitted men to commute to work on subways and buses because “unavoidable and
unintentional physical contact is devoid of sexual connotations.” Feinstein
memorably noted that “it is idleness that makes a man prone to lascivious
thoughts” (Even Ha’ezer 2:14).
In recent years, the haredi community has
adopted increasingly zealous and extremist positions, especially with regard to
questions of female modesty – tzniut.
Women’s physical proximity, no
matter how perfunctory, has been transformed by the sex-fixated, and apparently
idle, minds of some haredi men into an insurmountable spiritual stumbling
The inner dynamics of the haredi community allow these men to
leverage their influence. One cannot be too righteous, while moderation is
viewed with disdain as a weakness. The result has been an unrivaled push for the
radical revamping of the public domain.
Meanwhile, haredi women, duped
into a false consciousness, are convinced that the “right” forced upon them by
men to sit at the back of the bus is a type of empowerment. In this post-modern
feminist narrative, the haredi woman becomes a “partner and beneficiary” to
“family integrity” by creating “temptation-free” comfort zones, as though a
man’s fidelity can in some way be compromised by riding on a bus. Should the
onus be on women to banish themselves from man’s sight, and not on men to look
away? HUNDREDS OF thousands of Jerusalem’s residents who are not party to this
collective madness should not have to suffer when they board the light
Feinstein’s ruling was presumably based on his high regard for the
integration of men and women into the workforce as productive members of
society, which, he understood, entailed normative social contact, such as
boarding a light rail car that contains members of both sexes. Feinstein also
knew that religious extremism, instead of fostering modesty and chasteness,
could lead to an obsessive preoccupation with sex and that this preoccupation is
a function of too much free time.
The cure, according to Feinstein, was
not to force women out of sight, but to go out and get an honest, productive
job. How right he was.