Silence prevailed on the bus as it made its way to the city of Beit Shemesh, west of Jerusalem. The passengers, some of them dozing, others apparently deep in thought, began to shift restlessly. Men wearing large skull caps fidgeted in their seats, constantly glancing at their watches, trying to understand what was causing the delay. The shifting about did not disturb the tranquillity of two women sitting in the back.

There were 15 passengers on the "mehadrin" line - the "strictly kosher" private bus line from Jerusalem to the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) neighborhoods of Beit Shemesh - one day during the week of Rosh Hashanah. The women boarded the bus on a busy street in Jerusalem's Geula neighborhood. Together they managed to lift a large suitcase into the baggage compartment and then entered the bus by the back door. Their fare was collected by a ticket-seller who boarded the bus only when it arrived in the Haredi area of Beit Shemesh. He looked to one side when he collected the women's fares.

Recent weeks have seen a stubborn battle over this private line on the Jerusalem-Beit Shemesh route between Egged, the country's largest bus company, and the residents of the Haredi section in Ramat Beit Shemesh, who benefit from the mehadrin line. Most of them belong to the two extreme groups in the Haredi community, the Eda Haharedit and Toldot Aharon. The struggle prompted dozens of Haredis to take to the streets in violent demonstrations in September.

Contrary to the impression the casual reader might glean from the wall posters that went up in Jerusalem, this is apparently not a battle of principle to preserve modesty, but a struggle driven by economic competition. Yet even this conclusion is only partly correct. An outburst of passions like this, especially after the Haredim appeared to have abandoned violent demonstrations in recent years in favor of other methods of protest, attests to the complexity of the affair.

The disturbances began at the beginning of September. The official cause was the inauguration by Egged of a separate bus line, No. 418, from Jerusalem to Beit Shemesh, which was to follow the same route as the private bus line. With the backing of the neighborhood's rabbis, the members of the Noam Hahessed association, which runs the private line, called on the residents to demonstrate, arguing that Egged would not be able to meet their strict criteria for modesty. One argument was that because Egged does not employ ticket-takers, women would not be able to board the bus by the back door, thereby eliminating the total separation of the sexes.

The purity committee

One reason for the broad support the struggle attracted on the Haredi street is the support of the neighborhood rabbi, Natan Kofschitz, an important rabbinic authority in the Eda Haredit, whose rulings are accepted by broad circles. The established Haredi press joined the battle, citing deprivation of livelihood, but one of the members of the association, Pinhas Klein, from the Vizhnitz Hasidic community, said the line is not intended to make a profit and is operated on a voluntary basis.

The support also stemmed in part from what might be called a consumers' protest against the service provided by Egged. A Beit Shemesh resident who is involved in the dispute behind the scenes, says the demonstrations are no more than "a venting of anger after the terrorist attack on the No. 2 bus in Jerusalem [in which 22 Haredim were killed] and the feeling among the public that if the bus hadn't been so crowded, the number of dead would not have been so high." He added that even those who did not advocate violence thought that it wouldn't be a bad thing if Egged improved its service as a result of the demonstrations.

For the moment, Egged has surrendered. At least until tempers calm down, the company's spokesman says, the 418 bus will not enter the streets on which the private buses are operating. The private buses, for their part, are avoiding the neighborhoods where the Egged buses run. However, Klein says that the members of the association know nothing about this and he adds that if it turns out that Egged is again operating in the mehadrin format, the Haredim will take to the streets again.

The concept of the "modesty buses" originated in Haredi centers in the United States, such as the Williamsburg section of Brooklyn, where a barrier separates men and women on buses. According to the political scientist Dr. Neri Horovitz, head of the Senior Civil Service Programs at the Mandel School for Educational Leadership in Jerusalem, the separation in the American communities grew from the need to pray on the buses during the long trips to work in Manhattan and back. That is also the reason for the barrier.

In Israel, and not by chance, the initial proponents of the idea were from the Gur Hasidic community in Ashdod, who organized private transportation between Ashdod and the Haredi center of Bnei Brak, adjacent to Tel Aviv. The Gur community is known for its strictness in matters of interpersonal relationships. Nor is it a coincidence that the body that is promoting the campaign, with the aid of leaflets and signatures of rabbis, the Committee for the Purity the Community," headed by Rabbi Moshe Razhminsky, which was active in the Beit Shemesh demonstrations, is not operating in Ashdod.

As happens in other campaigns among the Haredi public, conducted in the name of the "purity of the community" - against the Internet, for example - some Haredim explain the manifestations of extremism in the current struggle as a natural counter-reaction by the Haredi community to growing permissiveness and the sheer size of the Haredi public, which is no longer amenable to close supervision. At the same time, the separation campaign did not really catch on in the important Haredi centers in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak. The phenomenon began to take root in the Haredi - and largely Hasidic - town of Betar Illit, in the West Bank, where the operators of the bus company are Haredim. In contrast, in the community of Kiryat Sefer, which is considered the bastion of the rigorously strict Lithuanians, the idea did not take hold at all.

In the past two or three years, Egged has begun to operate mehadrin lines of its own as part of its marketing policy. At the moment it runs 10 such lines between Haredi population centers (Bnei Brak, Jerusalem, Ashdod, Safed, Rekhasim, Beit Shemesh). "It's a purely economic thing," says Egged's spokesman. "It's a legitimate service for a population that demands it, with the goal of increasing the number of passengers." The fact that women sit in the back, in a way that might be considered humiliating, was not a consideration, he says.

"In reality," says a resident of Betar Illit, "this is not a matter of sensitivity to the wish of the public, only a response to the vociferous extremists among the public." Egged appears to have become a kind of agent for the Committee for the Purity of the Community: wherever a pirate mehadrin line operates successfully, Egged comes to an arrangement with the operators and takes over the line. The first line to be swallowed up in this way was the Ashdod-Bnei Brak route.

Horowitz says that the success of the struggle in Beit Shemesh clearly reflects the supremacy of the conservatives within the Haredi society. These are the same forces that fought against the receptiveness to professional training in the Haredi society, a campaign that was led by Rabbi Yehuda Leib Steinman. Now the moderates are falling into line, he says, with the extremists on every subject.

The Betar Illit resident with the critical eye looks askance at the spread of the mehadrin approach. "People my age have a perspective on things," he says. "But there are children who are being born into the reality of the bus separations." Maybe in a few years, he reflected aloud, such strictures will become part of the Shulhan Arukh [code of Jewish law] and people will treat them as religious law.

New ghetto in Beit Shemesh

The mehadrin lines began operating in Beitar Illit only three years ago and were at first viewed bitterly by women. "Women didn"t like that they had to walk between the men to the back of the bus," says a female town resident. Now, she says, these buses have become routine. At the same time, Horowitz observes, when there is an alternative in the form of an Egged line, it's far from certain that Haredim in a hurry will wait for the arrival of one of the mehadrin buses, which run less frequently.

Indeed, there is no sign that Egged's 417 and 418 lines to Beit Shemesh are being boycotted by Haredi passengers. But even if these passengers were critical, they didn't dare speak out - not even after the demonstrators tried to prevent Haredim forcibly from boarding the buses and not even after the police closed the neighborhood to cars for a few hours. The protest was confined to the private sphere and to the Internet sites surfed by Haredim.

One Haredi newspaper published a letter from a female reader who complained that the demonstrators were very few in number and that "there are people who do not agree with them and with their method of operation, which is causing a terrible desecration of God's name."

Another way of looking at the struggle in Beit Shemesh, Horowitz notes, is as another chapter in the conquest of the city's Haredi territory. Recently, the Kupat Holim Clalit health maintenance organization opened a branch - also in the mehadrin style - in the Haredi section of Beit Shemesh. Women are received there at separate times. "On the periphery, far from the community's warm embrace of the Haredim, there is a need for a renewed definition of identity," says a religious educator, a woman who is very familiar with the Haredi community in Beit Shemesh. This remark is equally applicable to all the Haredi communities on the periphery. "Among the Haredim, this identity often takes shape around their opposition to something," she notes. "It used to be opposition to the Zionists, now it's opposition to Egged."

Yet it's ironic, she says, that the young people who for the first time left the confines of Mea She'arim, the large Haredi neighborhood in Jerusalem, and were condemned for it by the veteran community, sought to create another ghetto in Beit Shemesh, of all places. But on the other hand, what could be more natural? A ghetto is an expression of a close-knit community, of an absence of alienation. The mehadrin bus lines are a distinctive denoter of community, and perhaps that is what the fight in Beit Shemesh is about. The residents of the Haredi quarter there can now have the bus pull up in front of their homes, so that they won't have to make their way with their children and their packages to the bus stop. If the line passes to Egged, something of this family atmosphere is lost. On the private Haredi line from Haifa to Bnei Brak, the ticket-taker, with his long sidelocks, cracked jokes with the women, whom he seemed to know well. The warm atmosphere recently gave way to a feeling of silent alienation on the new Egged line.

Often on Shabbat, the woman educator relates, young yeshiva students from Mea She'arim who have come to visit their older brothers in Beit Shemesh walk along the winding street below Ramat Beit Shemesh shouting "Shabbes!" in Yiddish, as they are used to doing in Jerusalem at passing cars. "How else can they express the confusing encounter with these vast spaces in Ramat Beit Shemesh?"