Court quizzes state over segregated buses

Justice Elyakim Rubinstein: One cannot impose separation and demands for modesty on those who oppose it. Solutions must be found.

egged bus 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
egged bus 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The High Court of Justice on Monday asked tough questions of the Ministry of Transportation during a hearing on a petition filed by five women and the Israel Religious Action Center against the unregulated use of segregated buses by the Egged and Dan bus companies. "It is reasonable to provide bus lines for the haredi community," said Justice Elyakim Rubinstein during the hearing. "However, one cannot impose separation and demands for modesty on those who oppose it. Solutions must be found. For example, by having the bus driver protect passengers so that when one passenger disturbs another, the driver will order him off the bus. Another idea is to display a sign informing riders that the line is segregated." Justice Yoram Danziger said that "a voluntary arrangement which harms dozens or hundreds of women is impossible." The petitioners, who included novelist Naomi Ragen, were represented by attorneys Einat Horowitz and Orly Erez-Lachovsky. They charged that "the arrangement of segregated buses, which began as a pilot project involving a few bus lines a decade ago, has expanded over the last years to include dozens of urban and inter-urban lines operating all over the country. It has reached such a state that even in bus lines that are not segregated, the haredi passengers take the initiative to separate the women by force." The petitioners called on the Transportation Ministry to conduct an objective examination of the need for the segregated lines, including the number of passengers concerned and their needs and preferences. They also called on the ministry to establish criteria for introducing segregated bus lines in accordance with their findings. Arguing on behalf of the Transportation Ministry, the state maintained that the principle of the segregated buses is that the arrangement is voluntary. "The arrangements on the segregated buses were voluntary from the start," said attorneys Dana Briskman and Itai Ravid. "They primarily serve the haredi community and are based on principles acceptable in haredi society." They pointed out that according to the allegedly voluntary arrangement, men sit in the front of the bus and women at the back. The attorneys also said there was no need to establish specific criteria for determining when to establish a segregated line. The petitioners charged that the claim that the segregation was voluntary was outrageous. They referred to the individual cases of the women who had filed the petition and had described their experiences while riding in segregated buses. Horowitz and Erez-Lachovsky accused the state of trying to deceive the court. The justices were highly critical of the state's position that no action was required. "The Transportation Ministry's position is not sufficiently connected to reality," said Rubinstein. "Its policy of 'segregation-blindness' is inadequate." The court did not rule Monday on the petitioners' request for a show-cause order. It is possible that instead of doing so, it will order the Transportation Ministry to appoint a committee to study the issue. The decision is due to be handed down in the coming days.