Sarit Zussman never planned to have her photograph taken for a billboard. The 36-year-old Jerusalemite and mother of three, who works in education, describes herself as “a religiously observant woman.” But over the past several months, as Jerusalem has become deeply embroiled in a religious versus secular debate on the place of women in the public sphere, she decided it was time to take a sort of stand.

Zussman agreed to have her photo taken for a campaign by the Yerushalmim movement, an organization that seeks to save Jerusalem from encroaching religious extremism and keep Israel's capital a lively, thriving place for Israelis of all stripes.

The signs from Yerushalmim's campaign were to feature photographs of female residents of Jerusalem with the caption, “Women of Jerusalem, nice to meet you,” and were set to be plastered along the sides of the city's iconic green Egged buses.

“I was born in Jerusalem, and it seems that the wind is starting to blow in a slightly different direction,” she says. “I’m part of the sector, part of the landscape, and I never meant to allow myself to be pushed into a corner. There’s nothing offensive about women appearing in the public space.”

But even as Zussman tried, the odds were stocked against her. The sign with her photo never made it to an Egged bus. Egged, along with the Cnaan advertising firm, which is the exclusive franchisee for advertising on Egged and Dan city buses, refused to mount them.

The Yerushalmim movement and City Councilwoman Rachel Azaria refused to back down, and submitted a petition to the High Court of Justice, which was accepted. Transportation Ministry officials said they were absolutely opposed to barring women's images on their buses, which set off a debate between Cnaan and Egged over the length of the women's sleeves. The end result of that debate? No images – either of men or women – will appear on Egged's advertisements from this point forward. Egged says the decision was prompted over fear of bus vandalism. Zussman, however, came away feeling more motivated to fight than ever.

“It has only convinced me how justified this fight is,” she says. “We can’t wait for somebody else to do the work.”

But pictures of humans are, apparently, just the beginning. Markerweek has learned that beginning in October 2013, Egged intends to stop all advertising on its buses in Jerusalem. The only thing holding them back from such a move is their contract with Cnaan. According to Cnaan’s CEO, Ohad Gibli, Egged officials wanted to stop the ads now, but Cnaan’s officials convinced them to keep advertising until the contract was up, on condition that the ads not contain images of human beings and appear only on the rear of the buses, not on the sides.

When images of females are blocked from bus advertising, the significance goes far beyond a fashion campaign or an ad for some sort of new product. In 2008, Egged officials refused to allow a photograph of Azaria on its buses during the municipal election campaign. Azaria submitted a petition to the High Court of Justice, which accepted it.

The battle, then, is not just about showing images of models in revealing clothing, but also about the question of whether women who are running for public office or who wish to advertise their businesses can appear in the city's public space. Although Egged’s blanket cancellation of all advertisements is being done in hopes of extracting the political aspect out of the discussion, it is highly unlikely that the matter will end here.

According to Egged spokesman Ron Ratner, “The moment the High Court of Justice had its say, the legal consultants of Egged and Cnaan decided that no more images of human beings would be shown until October 2013, and afterward, we would stop advertising entirely. We do not need the buses to be a base for commercial advertisements. Their purpose is to transport people, not to become a point of controversy.”

Ratner would not comment on whether or not the decision could have cultural or civil ramifications.

“Egged has not given in to the Haredim. This is purely a business decision. Egged’s officials believe that showing images of human beings on buses will cause it intolerable financial damage," he says. "Our business is not education or intellectual pursuits, but operating buses. We do not deal in values or image. Our mandate is to run public transportation in Jerusalem based on the guidelines of our regulator, which is the Transportation Ministry. Anyone who translates that into a political uproar is acting out of their own interests.”

Q. Do you really not understand where the uproar is coming from?

“That’s what I have to say. That’s what we’re doing. Our position is that we deal with public transportation, and if we didn’t have a contract with Cnaan, we’d stop all billboard advertising in Jerusalem immediately in order to avoid this uproar.”

Of course, there is an upside to the idea of clean, advertisement-free buses, first and foremost of which is the idea that most ads are annoying. Passerby, it can be argued, really won't lose out when this so-called visual pollution vanishes from traffic.

The rub, however, is that bus-side aesthetics were not the motive.

As much as Egged officials try to deny it, their business decisions bear great cultural significance. Knowingly or not, innocently or not, Egged and Cnaan have become active participants in a bitter culture war from which they have little chance of coming out clean.

Despite the fact that the people running the show at each firm are, themselves, not Haredim, and several pledges of avoiding politics notwithstanding, these firms are actually aiding the Haredi victory in the battle over Jerusalem's character.

“This matter has something important to say to Israeli society,” says Yerushalmim CEO Uri Ayalon. “We can’t abandon the capital city. Today, there are no pictures of men or women in Jerusalem. Tomorrow, there won’t be any in Tel Aviv. It’s inconceivable.”

“Egged’s decision is absurd,” says Azaria, the councilwoman. “If Egged buses are vandalized, then instead of going to the police and demanding enforcement, they’re making men and women invisible. It’s like not letting the kids go out to recess if there’s a bully in school, instead of dealing with the bully.”

According to M., a source close to Cnaan, “This is a very complex matter, with narrow profit margins. They pay the franchise fee up front, and they also pay the fees in advance to the contractors to install the ads, and they pay salaries in advance – and the payment ethics in the advertising industry, regrettably, are very bad. So even if the company makes a profit, it always needs an influx of cash.”

While Cnaan’s concentration on bus advertisements made it the only player in the field, it also increased its dependence on the bus companies to the point of symbiosis. “The way the market is today, if Cnaan should lose Egged or Dan, it will have no real way to survive,” says

M. confirms the statement. “That franchise is Cnaan’s bread and butter, so Cnaan will do whatever Egged says,” he says.

According to Gibli, the uproar has cost Cnaan its Jerusalem office and two of its clients. If Egged should decide to cease all advertising in Jerusalem when their contract ends, then even if Cnaan should win the franchise to advertise on its buses once again, the damage may be irreparable.

“I hope that it won’t happen in the end because that would be very bad,” says Gibli. “It will certainly harm our product, which is spread out all over the country today. If I have no presence in Jerusalem, my product won’t be whole.”

Q. As a secular person, how do you feel about the whole affair?

“I feel terrible, like with many things that result from the fight between the secular and the religious. This is another symptom of a very broad problem that I suffer from, first as a citizen and second as the CEO of a company, because I lose advertising budgets that I could have gotten otherwise.”

Q. You’re actually contributing to making women invisible in the public space.

“At the moment, there are no images of any people on the buses. But in any case, that doesn’t reflect my worldview or that of Kobi Cnaan or the people at Egged. It stems from current reality. Our company is concerned about the bottom line. That’s our job, and that’s what we’re supposed to do. Egged told us, ‘Our policy is that you can be right, or you can be smart.’ If we’re right, then there’s no reason for us to give in to Haredi pressure. Women can be put on ads, and that will cause us damage. The alternative is that we don’t give anyone the option of vandalizing buses.”

Q. So Haredi violence has gotten results?

“As you know, it’s not the first time that violence has gotten results. There are many situations in the world that have nothing to do with Egged where strong, violent and influential groups have succeeded in getting what they wanted.”

“Every other industry has put women back on its ads”

Unlike Cnaan, advertising on buses is only a side business for Egged. According to Dun and Bradstreet’s listing of Israel’s 100 largest enterprises, Dun’s 100, Egged’s income in 2011 was NIS 2.5 billion. Of that amount, advertisements on buses brought in NIS 5 million, the amount that Cnaan pays Egged every year – about 0.1 percent of their total pie.

According to a letter Cnaan’s attorneys sent to Yerushalmim’s attorneys last August, the amount that Cnaan pays for the franchise has decreased by 10 percent because of Egged’s decision to allow advertising only on the rear of buses.

According to Cnaan, 30 percent of their advertising is in Jerusalem. But advertising is still a negligible piece of the pie, and Ratner says that Egged has no problem stopping it entirely if it its cost exceeds its benefit.

“Over the years, Egged has suffered irreversible damage amounting to hundreds of thousands of shekels because of the vandalism,” Ratner says. “I’m not talking about disruptions of bus lines, late buses or an image problem that has to do with the bus not being safe. I’m talking about direct damage – to the metal, the paint, the glass.”

Making a mountain out of a vandalism molehill?

But is the old fear of vandalism in the capital still justified? Nissim Hasson, VP of sales and marketing for the Zohar billboard company, which holds the franchise for advertising on directional and map signs in Jerusalem, was for years afraid to put photos of women on his ads. Whenever he acquiesced, his signs were burned or splashed with tar, at a cost of hundreds of shekels per sign.

But his resolved has been strengthened over the past few months as he has seen women become further and further marginalized in society. He decided that it was time to put females alongside males on his signs, a decision that has brought him tens of thousands of shekels thanks to the broadening of his client base.

Vandalism incidents have been few and far between.

“I can’t say I’m not afraid, but I’m proud to fight it [the exclusion of women],” he says. “I don’t want to support it. I have three daughters, and the exclusion of women irritates me. When there’s a consensus with the municipality, it’s much easier to act.”

Writing to the High Court of Justice, the State Attorney's Office said that over the past year, no complaints of vandalism against Egged ads have been submitted, “and even before that, we remember no complaints of it.”

Protests, Azaria says, have raised public awareness and prompted calm among extremist sects. The bus companies, however, have yet to catch on.

“The protest against the exclusion of women helped in all kinds of media except for the buses,” she says. “Women were restored to the ads everywhere but there. It’s very odd.”

“Both Egged and Cnaan are describing a situation that doesn’t exist in Jerusalem. Maybe it existed during the 1980s,” says Ayalon. “Egged’s spokesman describes a situation in which people are standing in the street, ready to throw rocks at buses that carry advertisements, which is absolutely untrue. There’s almost no vandalism today, although a few signs are blackened at the entrance to Jerusalem. Campaigns with images of women are featured throughout the whole city.”

So are have the stories of vandalism been greatly exaggerated?

Ratner does not think so.

“There’s a difference between a sign on the street and a sign on wheels," he says. "There’s a difference to the eye between signs that are not in Haredi territory and buses that spend hours going throughout the city, where Haredim feel that it’s an inseparable part of their homes. Egged’s buses in Jerusalem cross the entire city and the people who ride them are very diverse. The Haredim do not distinguish between buses – the signs offend them to the same extent on all the bus lines.”

Gibli also says that buses are a particularly vulnerable medium, since no one can predict with certainty which bus will be going to which neighborhood, if a bus should break down, for example. So it is difficult to impossible to keep “immodest” ads in the non-Haredi neighborhoods only, as can be done with stationary signs.

Q. You’ve succeeded in pleasing the Haredim, but in doing so you’ve offended the secular population.

“The ads on buses are as interesting to the secular population as last winter’s snow," Gibli says. "The secular population are not their clientele except for a few people who want to run for the city council in 2013, like some city councilwoman or other and a group of interested parties.”

Q. It’s a fact that you have to defend the decision in the media.

“We believe that people who live in Har Nof or Shmuel Hanavi [mostly Haredi neighborhoods] do not care whether the ads on the rear of buses have images of people or not. The only ones who do are a few opinion-makers who are motivated by a personal agenda. It’s just media buzz with nothing behind it.”

The Haredim will be the ones harmed

But vandalism seems to be only part of the story here. The decision not to show images of women, even at the price of not advertising in Jerusalem at all, must be seen in the context of a business eager to hold on to its most important clientele – the Haredi riders who take up more seats than any other sector of the population.

Ratner says that the percentage of users of public transportation in Jerusalem is larger in comparison to other cities, and most of the passengers are religious or Haredi. According to a report published in 2009 by a government committee established to examine the “mehadrin,” or gender-segregated bus lines, Haredim used public transportation throughout the day, including during the evening and at night, unlike other populations.

For years, Egged has been receptive to Haredi needs. It operates special bus lines just for them, which bypass the Central Bus Station and are not publicized among the general population. It also operates at increased capacity just before and just after Shabbat, when travel needs are the highest. In the past, Egged also operated “mehadrin,” or gender-segregated, bus lines for the Haredi sector.

Like in so many cases, it appears that here, money is the true motivator.

“Egged put a few million shekels from Cnaan on one side of the scale and hundreds of millions of shekels in income from Haredi passengers on the other side, and decided in the end to remove the images,” says M. “Egged doesn’t want trouble with the Haredim.”

Ratner admits that Egged is receptive to the transportation needs of the Haredim, but denies that Egged’s recent decisions stemmed from a desire to avoid offending Haredi passengers. According to a poll conducted by the Central Bureau of Statistics in 2011, the Haredim make up only 34.4 percent of Jerusalem’s general population (among people aged 20 and up). But when it comes to ads, Jerusalem has been defined for years as a Haredi bastion. Publicists and advertisers who do not want to see their signs vandalized have engaged in self-censorship for years when it comes to outdoor advertising in Jerusalem.

For years, publicists have been careful to give the ads intended for Jerusalem to the Gal advertising firm, which is owned by Benny Gal, a Haredi man, who served as a kind of unofficial liaison. According to Benny’s son, Meir Gal, “There were years when bus stops and signs were torched, and a need was created for someone who could sit in the middle – between the people who wanted to advertise and the people who were torching the ads. We provided, unofficially, good advice to the publicists as to how far they could go. We also approached the relevant Haredi leadership and asked them to make sure that anything that didn’t need to be torched wouldn’t be.”

Meir says that is no longer necessary. “People in the professional market understand the rules of the game, and there is a status quo as far as what can and can’t be put on outdoor ads. Those who want to get along do. There are almost no incidents of vandalism today, and in most cases, where there is a collision along those lines, it has been planned as a kind of spin or news item. Today, even the most extremist groups aren't sending people out to vandalize signs. When there are incidents, it’s usually three kids with spray paint.”

“You have to understand that unlike the newspaper, which you can decide whether to buy or not, you can’t choose not to see a sign. You have to see it as you walk along the street,” Gal says, explaining the Haredi rationale. “Jerusalem is in large part religious or Haredi, and the commercial players consider whether the marketing work they do is worth it to them or not.”

“It’s hard to define the voluntary censorship. People think about the environment and the target audience,” says a secular publicist, who prefers not to be named. “If there’s a clothing company, for example, that wants to cause a commotion, it’s a great tool to use. It’s very easy to create a provocation in Jerusalem: Something that seems like the most rational and accepted thing among the secular public can cause quite an uproar. Companies that are not interested in an uproar will practice self-censorship. We know the territory, and we don’t need any more instructions of any kind.”

“We’ve reached a terrible situation in which publicists define Jerusalem, most of whose residents are not Haredi, as a Haredi city as far as ads go,” says Ayalon.

Ironically, the cessation of ads on buses in Jerusalem – if it should come to pass – will hurt mainly campaigns targeted toward the Haredi community. According to Gibli’s assessments, the advertising market on buses comprises about 17 percent of signage area, which is about five percent of the media field. According to publicist Eilon Zarmon, the owner of the Zarmon DDB advertising agency in Tel Aviv, “The major forms of media for the secular public are television, the Internet and the press, while outdoor advertising takes a back seat. As far as outdoor advertising, buses have a lot of alternatives, from large signs to smaller signs to bus stops. If Egged doesn’t advertise, we won’t advertise. Egged has a right to make that kind of decision. We won’t fight it. We have other battles to fight.”

Naomi Darom participated in the preparation of this report.