By RON FRIEDMAN
Will Tiberias be the next city to offer segregated buses for the haredi population?
On Sunday, Haaretz reported that haredi representatives in the city sent a letter to Veolia Transportation asking the company to operate a special line for the haredi population.
The legality of such lines is uncertain pending a High Court of Justice ruling on the matter and Tiberias municipal officials say it is unnecessary.
Rabbi Asher Idan, director of Jerusalem-based Kol HaNa'ar, a haredi organization that helps at-risk youth, contacted Veolia Transportation last week requesting the company designate a special bus line for the haredi population in Tiberas, where for modesty's sake, men and women sit at opposite ends of the bus. Such routes, which have been termed "Mehadrin lines," exist in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, Beit Shemesh, Safed, Ashdod and other cities with large haredi populations.
According to Idan, the haredi community wants a bus that will take its members from the lower city to Shikun Dalet (the Dalet Neighborhood), where a majority of the haredi population resides. "The religious/haredi community in Tiberias is large and important and will surely appreciate the new initiative that already exists in Israel's large cities," read the letter.
In its response, Veolia stated it would be happy to provide the service to the haredi population, in line with Transportation Ministry regulations.
What remains uncertain is whether bus routes such as the proposed one in Tiberias will be allowed to continue. In May 2008, the High Court asked the Transportation Minister to establish a special committee to investigate the functioning of the Mehadrin lines, in response to a petition by the Reform Movement's Israel Religious Action Center and others who say that the lines may be illegal because they discriminate against women, restrict freedom of movement and freedom from religious coercion.
In its recommendations, the committee, made up of representatives from the Transportation Ministry, the Justice Ministry and the Prime Minister's Office, found the current situation on the lines to be unjust.
The lines, which were originally established in the beginning of the last decade to increase haredi use of public transportation, were meant to be regulated on a voluntary basis, whereby both the front and back doors of the buses would be available for boarding, and people could choose where they wanted to sit. In practice, the committee discovered, the rules regarding separation were strictly enforced by members of the haredi population, and women who sat in "male territory," at the front of the bus, were often intimidated and bullied into moving to the back or getting off the bus altogether.
In its proceedings, the committee received statements from nearly 7,000 people, both secular and religious. Of these, 5,064 were in favor of the separation and 1,234 were against it.
One of the main problems that the committee faced in its deliberations was that the Mehadrin bus lines had no formal standing. Because it was meant to be strictly voluntary, the Transportation Ministry could not set up strict regulations.
According to the committee's report, the ministry did not have records of how many Mehadrin lines were actually in service. The committee, which worked according to a list of routes published by the Rabbinic Council on Public Transportation, said that since Mehadrin lines were not licensed separately, any notice coming out of a haredi source could state that a line was Mehadrin, without government approval or knowledge.
The committee also criticized the public transportation operators, and the bus drivers themselves, for helping enforce the separation, something they were not allowed to do, and for failing to meet their obligations to the general public by reducing regular bus lines operating in places where Mehadrin buses operated.
In the end, the committee recommended that the arrangement be canceled and that every person be allowed to sit anywhere they wanted on the buses.
It also noted that the use of both the front and back doors of buses was a benefit in terms of safety, service and efficiency and, if possible, should be adopted in additional lines, but that it should not serve as a means of de facto segregation.
Tiberias municipal spokeswoman Shani Yisraeli said that as a commercial company it was up to Veolia to decide whether it wanted to operate a Mehadrin line, subject to Transportation Ministry approval, but questioned its necessity.
"The mayor's policy is that companies and business owners should act according to their conscience and commercial considerations and not be affected by irrelevant pressures. At the same time, due to the fact that Tiberias doesn't have a haredi sector that is larger than other cities in the region, there is no justification for a special line and it is doubtful it will be approved," Yisraeli said.
Tiberias religious council director Eliyahu Cohen said he saw no reason not to have such lines in the city, but that he saw no advantage in them. According to Eliyahu, 30-35 percent of Tiberias's Jews are secular and the rest are of varying levels of religious orthodoxy.
"In general there is little tension between religious and non-religious in the city and we like it that way. There are one or two streets in the city that are identified with the haredi community, but even there, secular people live peacefully," said Eliyahu. "I believe that Torah should be taught with calm and politeness and not be bashed like a club over one's head."
When asked if he knew of the haredi community's request for the segregated bus line, Eliyahu said he had heard about it in the news, but had not heard the call first-hand. When asked if he knew Ilan, the rabbi who sent the letter to Veolia, Eliyahu said that he did not.
The Transportation Ministry spokesman said the ministry would not respond to questions on the Mehadrin bus lines as long as the issue was still before the court.
According to a survey conducted by Hiddush, a non-profit organization aimed at promoting religious freedom in Israel, 41% of Israeli Jews say that Mehadrin lines should be canceled, 39% say they should be limited to special routes, 14% say they should continue operating as they are and 6% said they should be extended further.
A Jerusalem Post online poll found that 76% of those who responded did not approve of segregated buses, 6% approved and 18% said that segregation should only exist in lines that operate in haredi neighborhoods.
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