Activists on 'mehadrin' bus: Men, you sit in back!

Protest organized by Be Free Israel sees some dozen activists make statement against gender segregation on 402 bus.

woman on a mehadrin bus_311 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
woman on a mehadrin bus_311
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
The 402 “mehadrin” bus line from Bnei Brak to Jerusalem remained segregated early Sunday evening during a protest against gender-separated buses, with the front half for journalists and activists, and the rest for just about everyone else.
The dozen or so male and female activists boarded the bus in an industrial section of Ramat Gan, and were followed by a bevy of reporters and cameramen. The mission: to make a statement against gender segregation on the mehadrin bus lines by sitting together, men and women, at the front of the bus.
RELATED:Haredi women resent intrusion into their sphereThe protest was organized by Be Free Israel (Yisrael Hofshit) in collaboration with several other organizations, and included similar actions on gender-separated bus lines in Jerusalem, Beit Shemesh and Rehovot, in addition to Bnei Brak.
Be Free Israel Director Mickey Gitzin said buses have become a symbol in the activists’ struggle to return women to the public sphere. Two hundred gathered in Jerusalem to ride intra-city mehadrin buses in the capital, in addition to a few dozen in Ramat Gan and other parts of the country.
The 402 bus from Ramat Gan to Jerusalem by way of Bnei Brak was still empty when the activists boarded, and they managed to take most of the seats in the front. A yarmulke-wearing French-Israeli who made aliya nine years earlier, Yigal, was riding the bus by himself home to Jerusalem from his law school studies, when the activists boarded, followed by a contingent of Israeli journalists.
“If you ask me, it’s wrong to have the separate bus lines. But doing something like this is provocation.
These people think the media is inciting against them,” Yigal said, as he fielded questions from three media outlets.
Carmel Eitan of Na’amat, the movement of working women and volunteers, said that her organization sent a group of volunteers to ride the buses on Sunday night not out of any desire to provoke haredim, rather to protest against “those who allow this discrimination to take place in the public sphere.”
After a briefing by the police escort and receiving assurance that the journalists and activists would pay the full fare to Jerusalem even if they were to get off after Bnei Brak, the bus driver began to make his way towards Rabbi Akiva Street, the central thoroughfare of the haredi city.
At the first bus stop, a few confused young women boarded and began slowly making their way to the back of the bus, where three male cameramen with spotlights were sitting in the final row filming their approach. A few men boarded and, also looking confused, clamored for seats in the front of the bus next to male activists or reporters, or in the buffer zone between the male and female sections.
By the next bus stop, there was little room left on the bus that wasn’t either mixedgender or standing room only. A few women made their way on and headed towards the back, while a number of men agreed to stand in the aisle. Most of those at the bus stop turned away when the driver said it was standing room only.
About halfway down Rabbi Akiva Street, the activists alighted, in order to head back to the industrial area to rendezvous with another busload of riders. There were no incidents on this run, but on another 402 line leaving Ramat Gan, the driver told cameramen that he would break their equipment if they began filming, activists said.
On the bustling sidewalk in Bnei Brak the group of nowmarooned secular activists and reporters were a minor curiosity at best, though a few passersby did stop to debate or crack jokes.
“You know there’s a synagogue nearby with separate sections for men and women,” an elderly haredi man joked, adding “there’s also a bathroom that separates men and women – run, quick, all of you!” One Orthodox man who wished to remain nameless stopped to chat about how the issue is seen in his community.
He said that on a daily basis he can choose taking a mehadrin line or a regular line, and that he picks the regular line each time because “I want to be able to sit next to my wife, but we need to respect everyone’s wishes.”
He also warned that while he agrees that more and more haredim must join the workforce and integrate into Israeli society, “the media is inciting discord between the religious and the secular.
And for me, as a religious person, if it’s religious vs secular.
I have to go with the religious, that’s just how it is.”
As he spoke, the newly vacant seats of the 402 were quickly filled. Within moments, the passengers separated themselves absolutely along gender lines, and the bus continued on its way to Jerusalem.

Melanie Lidman contributed to this report.