The road to purity

Is business or modesty driving the haredi push for more segregated bus lines?

egged bus 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
egged bus 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
On Wednesday, April 20, a group of residents, most of them wearing crocheted kippot, gathered in Mea She'arim, bearing placards protesting segregation on Egged buses in the capital. According to the organizers, there were about 30 people. "Quite an impressive number," says city council member Rachel Azaria, the driving force behind the demonstration. The fact that some 2,500 haredi men were demonstrating for the opposite viewpoint on the other side of the street didn't seem to discourage Azaria at all. She believes that the small group of people who responded to her appeal represent a lot more than those who showed up and will eventually prevail. "We're representing the non-haredi residents - secular and modern Orthodox together" - remarks Azaria, who is strongly opposed to the haredi initiative of the mehadrin bus lines in the city. Azaria says that the decision to demonstrate was out of concern that the haredi population, "which is a small minority of 20%, will keep on dictating to the rest of the residents how public transportation should look and function." Azaria, herself a religious woman, adds that the whole issue of separation between men and women on buses is not clear and that according to some of the highest Orthodox rabbinical authorities (such as Rabbi Moshe Feinstein), there is absolutely no reason for the segregation. As for the number of haredim demonstrating against the lack of mehadrin buses, there are also different opinions among themselves. "In terms of the haredi society, 2,500 people demonstrating is nothing," says Ya'acov Pashkuss, a former high-ranking official at the municipality and himself haredi. "This is not the highest issue on the haredi agenda these days. I would say it is an issue for just a part of the haredi society." But the nuances within haredi society are much more profound than they appear from the outside. According to a source close to the organizers of the demonstration, one should read between the lines. "We didn't call it a demonstration at all," explains the source. "We use terms like 'atzeret za'aka' [assembly of appeal] for what you call 'demonstration'; but in that particular case, it was what we call 'a rally of prayer and awakening,' which is totally different. It was intended to awaken the population to be aware that pretty soon the special committee of the Transportation Ministry will issue its ruling regarding additional mehadrin lines, and these rabbis wanted to let the committee members know that we take it very seriously, that lots of people in haredi society are very concerned. Believe me, if it was a demonstration, it would have ended with lots of riots, agitation, eventually burning of garbage dumpsters and the like. Once they said what they had to say, these people - and I think they were more than 2,500 - dispersed quietly." Mehadrin lines are Egged bus lines in which there is a separation between men and women. Usually the women sit in the back and men in the front. Usually these lines travel between Orthodox neighborhoods inside and outside Jerusalem and/or connect such neighborhoods directly with the Old City for those who want to reach the Western Wall without going through secular neighborhoods. The man behind the initiative is a Vizhnitz Hassid and a city council member, Shlomo Rozenstein. Within haredi society, Rozenstein holds the "portfolio" of "purity in transportation" and is the liaison between Egged and the Transportation Ministry. There is no doubt that what he has accomplished in terms of his being the spokesperson for his constituency is impressive. Eight years ago Egged, afraid of losing the largest part of its consumers (haredim are the most frequent users of public transportation), agreed to allow a few lines that served exclusively haredi neighborhoods to be mehadrin buses. At the time it was not official, and every time a passenger or a journalist discovered it, Egged tried to deny it or just evaded the questions, sometimes alleging that it was the initiative of a particular driver. The first line to become openly mehadrin was No. 3 which, in the late 1990s, connected Beit Israel and Sanhedria to the Western Wall. Then came the lines linking Jerusalem and Bnei Brak directly from the northern haredi neighborhoods. Today, there are about 50 mehadrin lines in the country, including a few that connect the capital with other haredi cities or neighborhoods in the center of the country (such as Bnei Brak, Petah Tikva, Ashdod). But according to other sources, the number is in fact far higher, as in many cases haredim try to force other passengers to use the bus like a mehadrin. The result depends on the attitude of the rest of the passengers; the drivers usually try to play it neutral. Inside Jerusalem there are, according to Rozenstein, six mehadrin lines, the most recent one being No. 49a, which connects Neveh Ya'acov to the Old City and the Western Wall. According to haredi sources, the next line they might want to "convert" is No. 7, which connects Arnona and Talpiot through the city center to the northern haredi neighborhoods of Romema, Beit Israel and Ezrat Torah. But Rozenstein insists that "the haredim have no interest in lines that serve almost exclusively secular neighborhoods; so line 7 is by no means the next target." WHETHER OR not mehadrin lines are the main issue on the haredi agenda, the issue is certainly becoming important for non-haredi residents of Jerusalem, who do not want to use the buses but feel that their rights are being denied by Egged. Besides the fact that many people - whether they are religious, traditional or secular - refuse to use the segregated buses, the fact remains that these lines, inside or outside the city, are cheaper and in some cases there is no alternative. Since separation on public buses first appeared in the city, a few cases of verbal and even physical violence have been reported and the issue has even been taken to the High Court of Justice. One of the most famous cases was that of Orthodox and feminist writer Naomi Ragen, who refused to move to the back of a bus. She told a US radio station about what happened to her when a haredi man told her to move to the back of the bus. "I call these buses the Taliban lines. You know, they can call it whatever they want, but that to me is what they are." But - at least according to sources inside the haredi society in Jerusalem - the issue now is not so much the fear of immodesty on public transportation but rather business opportunities ensuing from the operation of segregated lines. "Separated buses are a wonderful opportunity to make some easy money in the haredi society, and this is what makes this issue so harsh," says Yonatan (not his real name), a haredi resident of Sanhedria. "From outside, in the secular world, it seems as if it is all about these things you may call fundamentalism. This is indeed how it started. But today, inside the haredi society, it is mainly a matter of earning a living. People here ask, 'Why should we renounce such an opportunity for profit, especially in these days of economic turmoil, and leave the profit to Egged?'" For former deputy mayor Rabbi Chaim Miller (from the Ger Hassidim), there's no question at all. "The recent awakening in the haredi street on this subject is directly linked to our struggle against Egged and has no connection to economic issues," he says. "This company treats us with incredible cynicism. I suggest you take a trip on one of those buses and see for yourself. Even cattle would be transported in better conditions than us! Instead of the legal limit of 60 passengers, they carry sometimes as many as 120 people, like sardines in a can, just to save their money which, let me remind you, comes at least partially from the state." As for Pashkuss, a resident of one of the neighborhoods not far from Beit Israel, he agrees that the overcrowding on Egged buses is untenable. "On this issue of separated buses, I consider myself a liberal, even though I am a haredi hassid. But traveling by Egged buses to and from haredi neighborhoods is a real nightmare. And we all know the sad reality. Not all of us are decent and modest people, and even if we were so, in these conditions there is no way even a short journey on such a bus wouldn't be hazardous in terms of modesty; and in any case, it is totally unpleasant and unfair," he says. "I don't think that money or economic interests are behind this new agitation," says Miller. "There's no money in that business. We are just trying to force Egged to have some consideration for us and to add more buses on our lines. They think that because they agreed to install a few mehadrin lines they've bought us. But of course we're not idiots. After all, we all know that the haredim are those who make the largest use of public buses - we have big families, many children, and many of us do not own cars, so we are Egged's best clients - and this how they treat us!" According to Miller, the plan is to put pressure on the ministry so that the minister will force Egged to add more buses on the lines serving the haredi neighborhoods. "The decision is the hands of the Transportation Ministry; but if the people of Egged had a little consideration for us, they would have been the first to ask the minister to allow them to add buses on our lines." Still, a new private initiative was launched last week by a group of haredim belonging to the Eda Haredit, one of the most extreme factions within haredi society. Posters were displayed in all the haredi neighborhoods with the slogan "A Jew should reach the Wall in purity." The message is that the only appropriate way to reach the holy site cannot be achieved other than via a totally separated bus. The initiative of the segregated bus was stopped on its first attempt a few weeks ago due to a complaint from Egged to the ministry. "The organizers were afraid and they stopped the bus service, which caused some violent protests in Mea She'arim," recounts Yonatan. "But after a while, the decision was made to keep on with the project, and it has resumed as of this week. It is focused on the fact that Egged refuses to impose a separation on bus line No. 2 to and from the Wall." According to Yonatan, the reason given by Egged is that non-haredim also use this line, and there is no reason to force segregation on them. "We know that bus No. 2 transports as many as 20,000 passengers per day; but instead of offering us a decent service, Egged charges us the highest fares compared to other cities - and we're talking about people who use public transportation to go to pray at the most holy Jewish site!" For the moment, the local initiative is free of charge, after the rabbis of the Eda Haredit and some others joined forces to ask the public to raise donations to enable it. So far, according to sources inside the Eda Haredit, more than $100,000 has already been raised, and there is still a need for another $100,000. "People here will donate. Even a poor yeshiva student who hardly makes a living will not hesitate to donate his share for such an important goal," says Yonatan, "and we will teach Egged a lesson." UNTIL EGGED - or the non-haredi religious - manage to make a move this way or another, the issue is still pending at the High Court of Justice. In January 2007, the Israel Reform Action Center (IRAC) appealed to the court against the segregated bus lines of Egged. It was in the name of the movement, and five religious women (one of them haredi), including Ragen. In the appeal, IRAC wrote, through attorney Orly Erez-Lakhovsky, that "With all due respect and understanding of the special needs of the haredim who wish to use public transportation according to their customs, the state cannot respond to this need [for separated lines] in a way that forces other citizens to use segregated buses who do not wish to do so while financially supporting the company." "A little more than a year ago," says attorney Einat Horowitz, head of the legal department of IRAC, "we were told by the court that the Transportation Ministry had formed a committee to discuss the matter and establish rules regarding these issues. We were thus asked to wait until the committee reached its conclusions. We are still waiting, although the deadline for presenting the court with the decisions of this committee has been set for June 1." One of the issues raised by IRAC is the lack of alternatives for residents who do not wish to use gender-separated lines, in addition to the fact that on the mehadrin lines the fares are lower. People involved in the work of the committee suggest that this agitation on both sides is intended to put pressure on the ministry committee, as the date for the release of its conclusion is approaching. In a press conference held last week by haredi rabbis and their representatives, presided by Rabbi Dov Landau (head of the committee of rabbis for transportation issues), both Egged and the ministry were accused of "pushing us to travel under inhuman conditions. In a way, we feel as if we were dragged to the beach or to a mixed swimming pool, God forbid," concluded Landau. To which the Reform movement answered, "Not all haredim are interested in segregated buses; and despite their complaints Egged is adding new mehadrin lines, even though the committee hasn't yet finished its work." For Yoel Krauss, things are divided in two: his personal status and the situation of haredim in general. Krauss is the coordinator of the Eda Haredit in Mea She'arim, he points out proudly that he is not a Zionist. He does not accept money from the Israeli government, and he is very careful not to consume anything produced in a "Zionist factory" (like bread or milk). "I do not use Egged anyway because they violate Shabbat, but I am aware that not all the haredim act the way I do. I, for that matter, don't even trust myself. I know that we - men - are weak, so why put us to the test? What's wrong with separated lines? So it is obviously a problem unless Egged agrees to add more mehadrin lines. There is no question that we would prefer to have our own transportation companies, but we are realistic. The government would never allow us to do so, so most of us depend on Egged. There is one such line between the Wall and Beit Shemesh, established by haredim. They call us "pirate lines." These people get traffic tickets almost every day and fines from the Transportation Ministry, but people continued to use it. So Egged came out with a brilliant idea: They put two buses on that line - one regular and one mehadrin. Haredim who tried to use the mehadrin line discovered that this bus sells only youth tickets, which cost only NIS 9, while our bus charges NIS 15. Youth tickets even for senior citizens. I'm asking you, isn't it a shame?" Regarding the opposition from the general public, Krauss says it's much less than presented by the media. "See what's going on with line 49 to Neveh Ya'acov. At the beginning, when it became a mehadrin line, non-haredim complained. Now they accept it and use it because they know that it comes more frequently. There are numerous reasons for that situation. I agree that women getting on the buses from the rear might be a security problem, so we asked Egged to position a guard at the back of the buses. It costs only NIS 3,000. But Egged refused to install them. The problem is not only the overcrowding in the buses. We're nearing the summer, and that's when it becomes impossible for us. The secular passengers dress in a way that is absolutely unbearable for us." Yehuda Meshi-Zahav, the founder and head of Zaka, was once himself coordinator of the Eda Haredit. Today, he says that this focus on the fear of being in contact with women sounds a little obsessive to him. "When I was a child, I used to take the bus from Mea She'arim to Mahaneh Yehuda, and I don't recall that anything wrong happened to me. I think this whole matter of buses has become totally disproportionate - as if there are no real problems elsewhere. So what if they see a woman on a bus? What can happen to them? When I think of the terrible things happening in some families - like the sort of thing we have been witnessing recently - I really think it's a way of running away from the real problems. Mixed buses seem to me the least of our concern," he says. "I say that the buses today are perhaps the most problematic places regarding issues of modesty," says Rozenstein. "And in a way, our position is dependent on what is going on in the secular street. The more the secular become a permissive society, the more we try to protect ourselves. Once, in order to see an indecent billboard, a haredi had to travel to Tel Aviv, but today he only has to go downtown. So we have no choice - what we see in the streets genuinely hurts us, and we have to protect ourselves and our children." Both Krauss and Meshi-Zahav agree that in any case, violence is not expected.