Destination - Montgomery, Alabama, 1955

Where segregated bus lines will transport Israel to.

rosa parks sign (photo credit: )
rosa parks sign
(photo credit: )
If you miss me at the back of the bus, you won't find me nowhere. Come on over to the front of the bus, I'll be sittin' right there. That was the theme song that African-Americans sang during the 1955 Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott in their successful attempt to integrate that city's public transportation system. More than a half-a-century later, thousands of miles away, Israel's haredi community is trying to resegregate a bus system - not along racial but sexual lines. Recently, the press carried a story about a woman who was beaten on a Jerusalem bus for refusing to move to the rear to make way for one of the male travelers. Miriam Shear, an Orthodox Jew, reported that she rides the bus daily to pray at the Western Wall at sunrise. While the bus line she travels is not defined as "sex-segregated," the custom, primarily since the majority of travelers are haredim has been that women usually sit in the back, while men sit in the front. In a recent interview, Shear reports: "Every two or three days, someone would tell me to sit in the back. I was always polite and said: 'No, this is not synagogue. I am not going to sit in the back.'" Shear then goes on to report how on one morning a man got onto the bus and demanded her seat, even though there were other empty ones - both in the front and in the back of the bus. When Shear refused to get up, the man said: "I am not asking you - I'm telling you," at which point he spat at her. She was cursed, slapped and beaten - with nary an objection by others on the bus, including the cowardly bus driver. Asne Seierstad writes in The Bookseller of Kabul: "I also wore a burka to discover what it was to be an Afghan woman; what it feels like to squash into the chockablock back rows reserved for women when the the rest of the bus is half empty, what it feels like to squeeze into the trunk of a taxi because a man is occupying the back seat.." IS THIS what awaits us should we accept segregated buses for men and women? Perhaps we should have segregated buses for Jews and Arabs? What about Ethiopians? While black, many are Orthodox, so I guess a compromise could be found - they can sit at the back of the bus as well. And, if there are no more seats on the Mea She'arim-Old City line, they will just have to stand up for the their haredi white brethren. I am reminded of the story about the well-known African-American entertainer, the late Sammy Davis Jr. In the 1950s, during the height of the civil rights struggle in the United States, he boarded a bus in a small town in Mississippi. The white bus driver ordered him to the back of the bus. Davis replied: "But I'm Jewish," to which the driver responded: "Then get off!" Rosa Parks, the "mother of the civil rights movement," was a simple seamstress in Montgomery, Alabama. when, in December 1955, she refused to relinquish her seat on a city bus to a white passenger. The bus driver had her arrested. She was tried and convicted of violating a local ordinance. Her defiance sparked a citywide boycott of the bus system by blacks that lasted more than a year. The boycott resulted in the US Supreme Court decision outlawing segregation on city buses. In too many areas in our society we have created divisions, some artificial and some real: Religious-secular, Sephardi-Ashkenazi, Arab-Jew. We must not extend these to include male-female divisions. Equal rights, and even more important decency and respect, must be the guiding principles for building a democratic state based on Jewish values which hold that all human beings are created equally in the image of God. To violate the rights of another diminishes our own divine worth. There are those who oppose segregated buses on the grounds that public funds are being used. That's not the point. Sexual discrimination is unacceptable whether it be in the public or private sector. We are not dealing with mehitza (a curtain separating men and women in Orthodox synagogues). We are not even dealing with the fact that in the daily morning prayers, an Orthodox male thanks God for not "making me a woman." One could argue that such belief is a personal religious issue. And, while we may have difficulty with such practices, we must tolerate them. However, a chauvinistic theology must not be permitted to foster its prejudicial attitudes down the throats of a basically secular citizenry. They've been able to because of the nature of the Israeli political system - coalition governments are held hostage to Orthodox demands. Indeed, Orthodox intransigence has prevented Israel from enacting a law on basic human rights, because such a universal law about equality would put an end to Orthodoxy's religious hegemony. Separate bus lines? It goes beyond the realm of religious belief, and touches upon the type of discriminatory actions that have been legally eliminated throughout the free world. If we are to consider ourselves an enlightened country, we dare not let segregation become a part of the social fabric of our society.