Segregate or suffer

Alternatives to ‘mehadrin’ buses are costly, dwindling.

An updated list of gender-segregated buses operated by Egged and obtained by The Jerusalem Post on Thursday reveals that on five intercity routes passengers have no choice but to use “mehadrin buses,” and that on more than 25 other routes, females who don’t want to board via the rear door have to switch buses two or three times and often pay substantially more to reach their destination.
The list of routes, compiled by the legal department of the Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, reveals, for example, that it is impossible to travel from Ashdod to Safed by bus without boarding a mehadrin line or making a transfer. The same goes for people traveling from Beit Shemesh to Jerusalem and from Ashdod to Bnei Brak. The sole Saturday night bus from Ashdod to Haifa is also of the segregated variety.
In other cases, gender-segregated buses are simply the cheapest and fastest way to get from one place to another using public transportation. A passenger traveling from Jerusalem to Petah Tikva, for example, can either pay NIS 19.70 and take the segregated No. 426 bus directly, arriving at his destination in 79 minutes, or take the No. 400 bus to the Aluf Sadeh intersection, wait a minimum of 15 minutes and board the No. 164 to Petah Tikva. The overall cost of the alternative is NIS 28.50 and it will take at least 10 minutes longer.
Similarly, travel from Ashdod to Arad changes from a two-hour and NIS 24 ride on a segregated line to a four-hour and NIS 60 ride requiring two transfers.
The list goes on. The cost of travel from Jerusalem to Safed doubles if you insist on avoiding mehadrin buses and the same goes for travel from Dimona to the capital.
Einat Hurvitz, legal representative for Israel Religious Action Center, said more and more bus routes are becoming segregated and that the alternatives are dwindling.
Hurvitz is leading a legal battle in the High Court of Justice on behalf of the center and a list of female plaintiffs, who have petitioned the court to order Egged, Dan and the Ministry of Transportation to stop operating the segregated bus lines.
Gender-segregated bus lines first appeared in Israel in the ’90s in order to encourage haredim to use public transportation. Some interpretations of Jewish law say that to reduce impure thoughts in men, they should not be able to look at women. The solution for the often cramped conditions in public buses was to arrange a system where male and female passengers would board the bus from different entrances, men from the front and women from the back.
The arrangement, which started in places with significant haredi populations like Bnei Brak and certain neighborhoods in Jerusalem, expanded with time and began operating on intercity routes and eventually to places like Ashdod, Haifa and Arad, where haredim make up smaller percentages of the population.
Another phenomenon that has developed over time is that the arrangement, once voluntary, is more and more often being enforced by religious fundamentalists. Reports of women being bullied and intimidated into sitting in the back have begun surfacing on a regular basis.
Critics of the practice, including modern Orthodox Jews and some haredim, say it discriminates against women. Hurvitz said that there have been instances where people, mostly women, who refuse to abide by the arrangement have been attacked, and that in some cases bus drivers have taken part in forcing them to sit in the back.
Egged’s spokesman, Ron Retner, said the mehadrin buses operate under Transportation Ministry policies that aim to ease the use of public transportation for various sectors of the public, among them the haredi population.
“These lines connect haredi population centers and operate without intermediate stations,” Retner said.
“Egged does not interfere with the voluntary arrangement on the bus and in any case, the majority of public transportation users in Israel are law-abiding citizens and therefore the number of instances where drivers are required to intervene, for any reason, is minuscule and negligible in light of the more than a million passengers a day who chose Egged as their means of transport.”
So far, the government has been happy to let the status quo remain. On February 1, Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz (Likud), in an affidavit to the High Court, said the buses would remain in operation, but that the state would not tolerate the use of threats and violence to enforce the separation.
Katz wrote that while the state cannot establish separation between men and women on public transportation, operators should be permitted to hang “behavior-directing” signs asking passengers to sit separately, but indicating that this is not mandatory. It remains to be seen whether Katz’s solution will be accepted by the court.