Egged and the Wheels of Justice
Laughter broke the tense atmosphere of the Israel Supreme Court session on Thursday Feb.4 (20bShvat) when both sides, those in favor of gender-separated seating on Mehadrin buses and those against, reacted with smiles to the quip by Justice Elyakim Rubinstein. The session had started with a lengthy discussion about whether to put signs on the buses saying that anyone can sit where he or she wants, but as a courtesy on these lines men are requested to sit in the front and seats in the back are reserved for women. In Hebrew, one term for signs is “tamrurim.” After twenty minutes of arguments by the two sides about the efficacy of such “tamrurim” Justice Rubinstein remarked in Hebrew with a smile,
“I guess what we have here is “bechi tamrurim” — crying over signs,
a pun on the phrase from Jeremiah 31:14 where bechi tamrurim refers to matriarch Rachel’s crying bitterly (related to maror meaning bitter)..
I sat through the court session and, with Adar coming up, decided to record the humor and the jokes, which I will emphasize below. What occasioned the argument about signs was the surprising position taken by the non-religious Minister of Transport, Yaakov Katz (Likud) defending the practice of gender-separation on buses, as long as there is no coercion and provided that there are signs. The lawyer for the Minister explained that by putting up signs so that passengers will know that they are boarding a Mehadrin bus, then most of the unpleasant incidents will be eliminated. By this, Minister Katz unexpectedly overruled parts of the report of the “Committee for Examining Public Transport Arrangements for the Haredi Sector” appointed by his own Ministry. The report claimed that there was no legal basis for allowing Mehadrin buses. In contrast, he emphasized that there is also no legal basis to forbid separate-seating, as long as it is voluntary.
To recap the history of the case, ten years ago Egged introduced the first gender-separated buses between haredi cities or neighborhoods. There have never been signs or official enforcement. It was understood that certain lines were “Mehadrin.” Note that hundreds of thousands of passenger miles/kilometers are traversed each year by Mehadrin buses where equanimity, quiet, courtesy, and easy-going flexibility is the rule. But the undefined situation led some haredim to think they should or could enforce the seating arrangements. This officiousness led to a relatively miniscule number of unpleasant incidents.
The courtroom drama began in 2007 when several women who had been treated rudely when they sat in the men’s section (intentionally or by accident) filed a petition to the High Court of Justice (Bagatz, Beis din gavoha l’tzedek), in Israel’s Supreme Court. The offended women were led by a prominent novelist Naomi Ragen who defines herself as Orthodox, and is shomeret Shabbat. She teamed up with the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Committee (IRAC) to request that the Court ban the buses until the matter could be studied and regulated.
The opening salvo by the Court was in 2008 when Justice Rubinstein, who wears a knitted kippah and attended national religious schools, stated as a premise, “I do not see anything pasul or anything to disqualify Mehadrin buses for those who want them.” The argument of the petitioners against the buses was that they should be disqualified because they restrict freedom of movement and discriminate against women.
The Court required the Transportation Ministry to prepare a report on the problem. The aforementioned report of the 11-member Committee was published this fall, and last week Minister Katz accepted only some of their recommendations. I attended the packed Court session last week at which Justice Rubinstein was the presiding judge, accompanied by Justices Yoram Danziger and Salim Jubrin. Justice Jubrin provided another light moment in response to a statement by the Haredi attorney Mordechai Green who was there as amicus curiae (a brief filed with the court by someone who is not a party to the case). Mr. Green argued in favor of the Mehadrin buses, and represented B’Tzedek, the American-Israel Center for Promoting Justice. He claimed that many passengers, including secular Jews and Arabs, preferred the separate-seating. Justice Jubrin, who hails from the Arab sector, responded that as far as he knows Arabs have no problem with the mixed seating buses. At that point Justice Rubinstein turned to his fellow justice and said,
“Well, maybe that is minhag Jubrin!”
While Attorney Green claimed that even Arabs had no problem with Mehadrin buses, Einat Horowitz, the lawyer for the Reform IRAC claimed that even many Haredi women were phoning her Reform organization and complaining about the Mehadrin buses. She gave no numbers so it was not clear what “many” meant. To this Justice Rubinstein had another humorous retort.
“If Haredim are calling the Reform Center, then this is progress!” 🙂
Turning then to Attorney Green, Justice Rubinstein began a new set of questions. “Na’ar hayiti v’gam zakanti” he said, invoking the phrase from Birkat Hamzon, where in the grace after meals it says, “I was young once, and now I am old.” The Justice described his younger days decades ago when he rode Egged bus #400 frequently from Jerusalem to Bene Brak, and points in between. “Religious, secular, Haredi, everyone got along. A Haredi man would sit next to man on the bus, there was no separate section. So why did the Haredim start this innovation ten years ago?” he questioned. Among the responses was the observation that when the Justice was a youth, the standards of dress in the general population were much more modest, and since then there has been severe deterioration in that realm. Attorney Green, defending the Mehadrin buses, also emphasized that the arrangements inside the buses were almost always flexible and easygoing. Often married couples sat together in the center. If there were hardships for elderly or disabled women, they were usually accommodated in the men’s section.
The petitioners against the buses claimed that there must be equal non-Mehadrin buses for every separate-seating one. The lawyer for Egged explained that this would be uneconomical since there is not enough demand. There are currently 56 lines running in and between 28 cities (compared to over 3000 mixed-seating lines running among hundreds of cities and towns, on the order of magnitude of a million riders a day).
To the suggestion that Haredim run their own private lines instead of the public Egged and Dan companies (which are partially subsidized by the State) the Ministry of Transport lawyer responded, “That was the situation a decade ago when private Haredi companies ran their own buses, minibuses, and cooperative taxis which were often unlicensed and problematic. We worked hard to eliminate this unregulated situation and we were glad to have the Egged and Dan companies run the separate-seating lines instead.”
The last presenter was attorney Riki Shapira who spoke as amicus curiae against the Mehadrin buses. She represented Kolech (religious feminists), Neemaney Torah vAvoda (a national religious organization), and Merkaz Yaakov Herzog (modern Orthodox) who sided with the Reform, against separate seating. In her presentation she repeated many of the arguments already heard and the session was adjourned. A decision will be handed down at some future date. “What we have here are two parties pulling on opposite ends of a garment” concluded Justice Rubenstein, clearly referring to the chapter on shnayim ochazim b’tallit in tractate Baba Metzia where two disputants fight over ownership.
There was quite a bit of discussion after the court session in the hallway. Reporters asked: Why weren’t signs posted from day one ten years ago? Several people gave the same answer: Egged was afraid it would look like Egged was putting its imprimatur on the arrangement and worried that the courts or government would not allow it. But now it seems Egged is being rebuked for not having put up signs. This is a case where you are condemned if you do, and condemned if you don’t.
Another question arose: Did the Committee approve or disapprove? They said it was not legal, but they also said it is not illegal. (Remember Purim is coming up). Similar to the question: Is everything permitted in halacha that is not expressly forbidden?
One of the handful of Haredim who attended the session, which was open to the public at large, commented afterwards,
“It behooves us to be exceptionally sensitive and polite in general, and especially when riding the Mehadrin buses, because of the delicate situation. If some passengers had not been brusquely treated, the whole situation might not have reached the Court.”
P.S. FYI, here are the milestones in the case.
About the year 2000, Mehadrin Lines were initiated by Egged.
In 2004, Naomi Ragen was offended by a fellow rider.
In 2007 Naomi Ragen and Reform IRAC file petition in Supreme Court against Transport Ministry, Egged, Dan buses.
In 2007 some Orthodox observers also expressed reservations about the Mehadrin buses, e.g. Gil Student and Jonathan Rosenblum.
In 2007 yours truly explained the rationale behind the buses ; writers like Yaakov Menken defended the buses
In 2007 I was asked by the JTA to explain them in a debate with an American (who never once rode the buses). See the Wyoming Valley Reporter (which is not in Wyoming)
Oct. 2009 the Committee of transportation experts issues report
Oct. 2009 Naomi Ragen goes on video to praise the committee.
Feb.1, 2010 Transport Minister Katz publishes reaction to Committee Report a day before Supreme Court holds a public hearing.
Feb. 12,2010 – the case is still in limbo. Jerusalem Post runs front page “news” article, in a tendentious report giving voice mainly to the Reform IRAC vew, trying to scare the public.
I am glad that Justice Rubinstein used Jewish phrases, it contrasts with those justices who are ignorant of Jewish sources. Much of secular Israel today is woefully ignorant of Judaism. There is not enough Jewish education in the secular schools.
As far as this bus issue, I grew up in Montgomery at the time of the bus boycott and can’t figure out how a modern, democratic state will institute segregation of women. If I ride a bus in Israel I want to sit next to my wife and so do most couples. I am not a Gerrer or a Satmar Chossid and I object to Meah Shearim being the voice of Judaism.
It would be much better if there were common sense courtesy. A poorly dressed woman should have respect and not sit next to an obviously religious man. A chareidi man shouldn’t spit and kick religious women going to daven at the Kotel.
We can’t put a females photograph in a frum newspaper, we can’t even mention their names. mazal tov to so in so on his daughter’s wedding and then the name of the choson i standard procedure. Why do they make the rules? Are they really right? It wasn’t that way. Rav Shlomo Zalman Auerback rode a bus every day and he didn’t complain, why are these people more religious than he was.
I have heard a number of Chareid women who like the idea in theory, but do not like the way this has been done; the primary problem being that far too many chareidi men seem to think it gives them a license to overstep bounds they should most definitely NOT overstep, or that they are obnoxious about the way it is implemented.
An interesting example of the latter is something a woman described to me about one Mehadrin line. She said that the the usual “dividing line” is a bit further than halfway to the back of the bus, which usually works pretty well. But there are certain times of day when there are far more women than men on the bus, so the dividing line should be LESS than halfway to the back, and worst case halfway. But, sine this it “the” the dividing line is at the door there are some men who INSIST on sitting right by the boor so that the mens’ place is not encroached on. It gets her upset because there are empty seats in front of these guys, while women are standing. She called them Kanoim.
This kind of thing never hits the news, so it’s hard to tell how much of this really goes on. And, of course, many (if not most) Chareidi women are probably like the woman who described this to me, and would still prefer the Mehadrin buses, even with such abuses. But, certainly, stories like this will reduce the good will of many people who would otherwise be ok with it. And, it’s easy to see how stories like this could cause even Chareidi women to say “I don’t think Halacha requires this kind of nonsense, and I’m with Naomi Ragen etc.”
And, yes, I do realize that these idiots are in the minority. What I hope this case in the court accomplishes is that the majority who DO have more sense than that will become more vocal and try to stop the idiots when they do stupid things that disturb other people.
I think that the history of the world has shown that mixing religion and politics can be quite a destructive enterprise. I can understand how our having our own Jewish Land of Israel back is a lot more meaningful if it is informed by Torah law, but this should be general guidelines. Tying religious law in its extensive details to official state law should be avoided whenever possible. I can see where Torah law would and should play a larger role in matters such as the destruction of life or property, but I am not sure that religion should play such a major role on issues such as who sits where on a bus.
Nobody is forcing religious people to ride publicly-funded buses; if they do not like it, they can form their own transportation system. Better yet would be to leave the whole transportation business to the private sector, letting each customer decide which competing private transportation company, they would most like to travel in.
But the idea, for example, of men forcing women to the back of the bus just because us men have trouble controlling our impulses, strikes me as being unfair to women. I will even go as far as to say that such behavior is a desecration of G-d’s Name.
Raymond: Nobody is forcing religious people to ride publicly-funded buses; if they do not like it, they can form their own transportation system. Better yet would be to leave the whole transportation business to the private sector, letting each customer decide which competing private transportation company, they would most like to travel in.
Ori: Spoken like a true American. In Israel, the government sticks its finger into everything. When Charedi entrepreneurs opened their own bus lines, the Ministry of Transportation worked hard to stop them.
Having seen both counties, I believe the US system works a lot better. But I don’t see Israel downsizing its government any time soon.
Ms Schmidt, examining your timeline at the end of the article I find it quite interesting that you omit all the women who were physically attacked and beaten when they refused to move to the back of the bus, a couple of times on non-mehadrin lines. Is there a reason why you skipped all that?
Welcome to the overheated “Take no prisoners” religious vs non religious reality that sadly exists in the Holy Land! While I understand and somewhat support your concern that the Mea Shearim/Bnei Berack people should not be the rule makers,are you aware of the equally nefarious agenda of the people on the other side? Naomi Ragen is to be likened to a Goldstone,by virtue of her quest for prestige,and her willingness to partner up with almost anybody in order to garner some publicity
thanks Aron for helping me ground my opinions in sechel hayashar.
It is hard not to be krum as a pretzel when one grows up in the United States and is exposed to secular studies, freedom of speech, assembly, the press and religion. What we see today in Iran shows that evil masquerades in the garb of religion. We Jews, thank G-d, don’t kill our opponents (except when the Zionists did a few times like to Da haan or the Altalena). I would rather live in aa free society where my religious obsrvance is a private matter than in Meah Shearim or Bnai Brak. Look at poor Nosson Kaminetzky, Slifkin, Lipa,etc., the language on the bans is one step away from physical violence. It is hate speech of the worst kind. Give them an inch and who knows what comes next.
Ori, thanks for responding to and having respect for what I said.
I agree that Israel is far too socialist. Israel’s two biggest problems are 1) that they often seem to care more about what the world thinks of them than of protecting its citizens from islamofascist attacks and 2) that socialism continues to dominate both its educational system as well as its economy. The Heritage Foundation’s Index of Economic Indicators shows that while the United States ranks a very respectable seventh among the 183 countries listed, that Israel ranks far lower than that, in 44th place on that same list. If Israel would adopt more of Milton Friedman’s ideas and give up the debilitating socialist foundations that the modern State of Israel has, then Israel’s economy would not only prosper greater than ever, but problems like the bus seating situation can be avoided, by simply giving each individual person a clear choice between what kind of bus he or she chooses to ride in.
I realize there are women who are fine with sitting in the back of the bus. I realize I may be projecting Jim Crow laws onto an entirely different situation. I realize (or hope) that it is not the intention of Charedi men to treat women second class. However, I cannot ignore the fact that all around the world second class citizens sit at the rear and second class citizens are given less space.(and space of an inferior quality and the back is more likely to give you motion sickness). I remember reading somewhere that a tzadik must avoid even appearing to do something unseemly;for instance going into a non kosher diner even if it is only to use the bathroom,because it might APPEAR as though he is doing something wrong. SO in this case while the Charedi may well be tzadiks it APPEARS as though they treat women second class. I wouldn’t consider that a kiddush Hashem. To some extent we are supposed to be a light to the nations we are supposed to make G-d BElOVED in the eyes of the world. For people who care about the how women are treated in this world-this will not make Hashem beloved. Furthermore it is a stumbling for them. However, for the growing numbers of people who seem not to mind how Islam treats women and who don’t much care about “women’s issues” in general-perhaps for them this is a light. While it is good that at least a court has ruled against forcing women to the back of the bus let’s face it, those women who do not comply with the seating arrangmenents will be branded as a selfish arrogant power hungry feminist protesting “petty issues” or “trying to be like a man” by sitting where the men sit “not knowing her place” etc etc etc. But the fact remains in this day at this time even appearing to treat women second class when it can be avoided is not a kiddush Hashem G-d will be my Judge.
The problem that I have with the behavior of the men whom are obnoxiously behaved is that we do not want to find ourselves in a situation of chillul Hashem with perhaps more public outcry for this type of behavior. Meaning, we do not want to see extremism seen as the norm and escalate.
Rock throwing on Shabbos toward those who do not observe Shabbos is a chillul Hashem and it is made public so it is further chillul, I do not want to see this separate seating issue bring hardship and go into the public light as well. We need to increase achdus, not decrease it.
Raymond, I agree with what you say. I grew up in Israel, and I now live in the US. Unfortunately, I don’t see Israel changing. “You’re wrong, but it’s your choice so you can do whatever you want” isn’t really part of the culture.