Extremists on both sides are causing discrimination on Israeli buses

RELIGIOUS AFFAIRS: Even though these types of behaviors have existed for years on Israeli buses, two things have changed: Judicial reform tensions and a fast-growing haredi population.

 YISRAEL BEYTENU chairman MK Avigdor Liberman rides on a bus in Ashdod on Wednesday, after a recent incident of gender discrimination on a city bus. (photo credit: FLASH90)
YISRAEL BEYTENU chairman MK Avigdor Liberman rides on a bus in Ashdod on Wednesday, after a recent incident of gender discrimination on a city bus.
(photo credit: FLASH90)

Picture this: Cruising at 35,000 feet over the azure Mediterranean, you’re peacefully sipping your drink. Then, a tap on your shoulder. A request, polite but firm: “Would you mind moving seats?” Not because of legroom or a malfunctioning screen, but due to religious beliefs regarding seating next to someone of the opposite sex.

This airborne game of musical chairs is but a microcosm of broader social tensions on the ground in Israel, where the fast-growing haredi community’s customs sometimes clash with a shifting societal landscape.

The stewards on these flights, including international airlines other than El Al, try at times to be sensitive and accommodate these passengers, but it isn’t always possible. At times, they also lose their patience, since these types of issues may not only cause chaos on board, but also delay the flight.

In a story that went viral this week, Neria Kraus, a US correspondent for Channel 13, claimed that she was the victim of discrimination by haredi men on a recent United Airlines flight to Newark, and that the Israeli flight attendant had sided with the men against her.

In a post on X (previously Twitter), she wrote that a United Airlines crew member told her the flight to New York “won’t take off” unless she changed seats, due to requests from ultra-Orthodox Jewish men. “Haredim on this flight are now trying to reseat me because I’m a woman. United Airlines isn’t addressing the issue. I’m informed that because of me the flight won’t take off. Disgraceful.”

 A ceremony for the new parking lot for electric buses of the Dan company in Bnei Brak, February 19, 2023. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)
A ceremony for the new parking lot for electric buses of the Dan company in Bnei Brak, February 19, 2023. (credit: AVSHALOM SASSONI/FLASH90)

The sexist discrimination on Israeli transportation

This type of situation has become notorious on transportation in Israel. Even though these types of behaviors have existed for years on Israeli buses, two things have changed: The first is that the haredi population is growing faster than the secular, and its communities are more spread out than they used to be. The second and more substantial development is the heated climate of Israeli society, affected by the political discourse and the judicial reform.

The new reality was further highlighted by a number of recent disturbing incidents of bus drivers in Israel telling women to cover up what they deemed immodest dress, refusing to speak with women or demanding they move to the back of the bus.

The Jerusalem Post’s Ariella Marsden reported earlier this week that a group of teenage girls trying to get on a bus in Ashdod were told by the driver to cover up because they were wearing clothes that revealed their arms and legs. The girls were told to sit at the back of the bus.

“We were in shock,” said the girls after the incident. “Everyone looked away from us to the floor. There were only haredi people on the bus, and they didn’t react. We felt helpless and humiliated.”

Meanwhile, according to KAN Reshet Bet, a woman and her husband boarded a Dan bus in Ramat Gan, and when the woman tried to ask the driver a question, he ignored her. After a number of attempts, the husband asked the driver why he wasn’t responding, and he answered that he doesn’t “talk to women.”

Transportation Minister Miri Regev stated in response to these incidents that “there will be no exclusion of women in public transportation. Every incident, in my opinion, is something that must be treated with the utmost seriousness!

“Millions of passengers use public transportation every day, and as far as I’m concerned, not even one single case like this should happen. In the cases published in the last few days, the drivers were immediately suspended from their duties until the end of the investigation.”

It took him a few days, but Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Sunday also condemned a series of incidents in which women were refused entry to buses or forced to sit in specific spots. “The State of Israel is a free country, where no one can limit who gets on public transportation and no one can dictate where she or he sits. Whoever does this is breaking the law and should be punished for it.”

THE SECULAR public is not taking the “new normal” sitting down, or at the back of the bus. A march advocating for women’s rights is scheduled in Bnei Brak on August 24. This protest is in response to the ongoing discrimination and restrictions against women in public spaces throughout Israel.

The women’s movement’s statement expressed women’s concerns, saying, “They [haredim] aim to relegate us to the back of the bus, insist our daughters dress modestly, and have removed female CEOs from government positions. They envision us solely as worried mothers of active-duty soldiers.”

The statement continued, “We won’t stand for this. Our children deserve equal respect! Those who believe they can degrade and exclude women from public life and influential positions are mistaken. Such attempts will be met with our strong presence on the streets.”

“Know your rights on the bus,” is the headline of a flyer, distributed in Hebrew and in English to women across the country by the legal arm of the Israeli Reform movement. “Following The Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) landmark High Court ruling in 2011, you have the right to board any bus and sit wherever you want on the bus. There is no such thing as buses for ultra-Orthodox only.”

This relates to the fact that in certain haredi neighborhoods or on buses between cities with a large haredi populations, there is a nonofficial rule that men sit in front and women sit in the back.

“If a driver asks you to sit in the back of the bus, you can (and should) refuse,” IRAC wrote, adding that a woman should “tell the driver that it is illegal! If a passenger harasses you, the driver must protect your right to sit wherever you choose! If necessary, a driver must call the police. That’s their job!”

But this isn’t just a one-sided act of ignorance or hate; on the contrary: At the beginning of the summer, an ultra-Orthodox man, Yisrael Yonatan Hirsch, faced harassment from a woman on a bus in Hod Hasharon who mistakenly believed that, due to his religious attire, he hadn’t served in the IDF.

Hirsch recorded the episode, which subsequently went viral among Israelis online.

“I wasn’t the one who shared the video; it came out from a closed group chat,” Hirsch stated on Twitter. He also conveyed his remorse for capturing the moment, adding, “I could’ve been more empathetic toward those confronting me, just as I hoped they would be toward my perspective.”

Members of the left-wing group Ahim Laneshek (Brothers in Arms) were captured on video singing loudly on a bus. This bus was also occupied by ultra-Orthodox men from the Gerrer hassidic group and yeshiva boys. Their singing appeared to be aimed at harassing these passengers since, according to Jewish law, it’s forbidden for men to listen to unrelated women singing publicly.

The video, exclusively released by Kikar HaShabbat, a haredi news outlet, shows the ultra-Orthodox passengers trying to ignore the activists, seemingly unaffected by the disruption.

This footage quickly went viral, causing a stir online. Commenting on the situation, the site’s commentator, Yishai Cohen, tweeted, “Deliberately singing aloud near men who consciously avoid hearing women’s voices is tantamount to bullying.” He further condemned the act as “religious violence” and criticized it for targeting the community.

Cohen’s impassioned tweet highlighted that the community was being unjustly punished due to the misbehavior of a few. “Shame on you,” he added.

In response, Ahim Laneshek explained that its “Brothers on a Journey” initiative was started to foster genuine dialogue with their ultra-Orthodox counterparts, especially at a time when divisions seem more pronounced than ever. The initiative was an extension of its effort at the IDF recruitment office, where group members engaged in dialogues about the significance of army service.

The organization admitted that some of its members had acted inappropriately during the incident, offering its apologies. It emphasized, “This isn’t our way.”

Its statement concluded, “Our protest isn’t against the haredi community, but against polarizing leaders pushing Israel toward dictatorship. We urge all Israelis to maintain mutual respect, even in such challenging times.”

Navigating the complex cultural, religious, and societal landscapes in Israel requires a deep understanding of the histories and sensitivities of the communities involved. The recent issues surrounding seating arrangements on buses and flights connected to religious beliefs highlight the tensions that exist in a rapidly changing society. Both the haredi and secular communities have valid concerns and rights that deserve to be recognized and respected.

The haredi community’s rapid growth and increasing geographical spread make its practices more visible and, sometimes, more impactful on the broader public. Its wish for gender-segregated seating, rooted in religious convictions, is understandable within the context of its traditions. However, imposing such beliefs on others, especially in public spaces, creates conflicts and misunderstandings. Segregating women or demanding modest dress codes on public transportation tread on the fundamental rights of individuals to be treated equally and without discrimination.

In the Diaspora haredim use public transportation daily but don’t demand segregation or modest clothing, since they are a true minority. In Israel, they are becoming less and less of a minority.

On the other hand, there are instances of aggression and discrimination against the haredi community, fueled by misunderstandings and stereotypes. Harassing an ultra-Orthodox man for perceived lack of military service or deliberately singing to provoke haredi passengers showcases the prejudices faced by this community. Such acts only further widen the chasm between different segments of society.

Netanyahu’s statement underscores the importance of freedom and equality as foundational values for Israel. Such incidents challenge these principles, demanding both introspection and constructive dialogue.

Exacerbated by the divisive judicial reform protests, Israeli society appears to be fracturing more than ever.

There’s been an outcry from the secular public over the pilot program proposed by Environmental Protection Minister Idit Silman for gender-segregated bathing in nature reserves following the regular working hours, to enable haredim to go to the springs.

Even though it won’t affect the public’s access to the sites, the opposition against the plan is strong, as exemplified by Jerusalem woman’s response on Facebook to a petition to stop the plan.

“I used to believe that the fair solution was exactly this: extra hours for the haredim – after all, they are citizens like everyone less. But given recent events, I’ve changed my mind. They are not citizens like everyone else. They overwhelmingly do not contribute to the economy or serve in the army. If they don’t contribute to the national enterprise, they should not get to enjoy national resources.”

What’s crucial is recognizing that this is not a zero-sum game. Both the secular and haredi communities can coexist, practice their beliefs, and still respect each other’s rights. However, this requires effective communication, cultural understanding, and a commitment to democratic principles.

But first, there must be a place for everyone on the bus.