Israeli leaders are to blame for the religious segregation they decry
The sudden public outcry over gender segregation on ultra-Orthodox buses is misplaced: such practices have been going on for years. There are other new phenomena that should worry us more.
Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu spent the opening minutes of the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday decrying ultra-Orthodox efforts to segregate women and men on public buses, after one female passenger refused to sit in the back of the bus on a trip from Ashdod to Jerusalem.
"I heard about an incident in which a woman was moved on a bus," Netanyahu told his cabinet ministers. "I adamantly oppose this. Fringe groups must not be allowed to tear apart our common denominator. We must preserve public space as open and safe for all citizens of Israel."
Opposition leader Tzipi Livni made a personal call to the woman, Tanya Rosenblit, and praised her for her "bravery" and "determination."
"Her determination symbolizes the need for all of us who fear for Israel's image to fight and not give in," Livni said. "Tanya has shown personal bravery."
Along with those politicians eyeing elections on the horizon, half of the state is currently outraged over what is actually a longstanding phenomenon, in place officially for more than 10 years, and in practice even longer. No new developments have occurred since the matter was approved by the Supreme Court in January of this year.
Nothing new has occurred and nothing has changed, except that the Israeli media, dealing with the issue at the highest possible decibel, is playing into the hands of Netanyahu, Livni and all the rest of the politicians, who morning and night issue declarations of condemnation and consternation over the phenomenon of "excluding women from public space".
As of yet, nobody has asked them the underlying question, of how the phenomenon of segregation on buses emerged over the last decade with the approval of a long line of transportation ministers, many of whom are still prominent in the leaderships of the Likud, Kadima, and Yisrael Beiteinu: Ariel Sharon, Tzachi Hanegbi, Avigdor Lieberman, Meir Sheetrit, Shaul Mofaz and Yisrael Katz.
The bus on which Rosenblit was traveling that day, No. 451, is registered under the High Court of Justice as a 'mehadrin line', otherwise known as 'strictly kosher'. This designation was given to more than 50 bus lines, serving both inter and inner city, for a "trial period" which has lasted for over two years already.
The court, which issued an order against adding any more bus lines during this "trial period", has also refused to define them according to the popular-media term 'mehadrin'. In actuality, the court has refused to define these bus lines at all.
It has dealt only with legitimizing the procedure under which passengers can board a bus through the back door, though it's obvious that the only passengers boarding through the back are 'she's and not 'he's. That is, women passengers in the back, men in the front. For all intents and purposes, it is the court that made bus segregation kosher.
The High Court ruling in January made it possible for both the ultra-Orthodox 'defenders of modesty' and their opponents to declare victory: the opponents celebrated the explicit prohibition against forced segregation, but the ultra-Orthodox 'defenders' understood that these mehadrin lines are free to roam the streets of the country.
It is worthy to note that the demand to institutionalize gender segregation on these buses came originally from passengers on the overcrowded buses of Jerusalem and the "Eida Haharedit", a sect of fanatical zealots who represent a mere minority in the ultra-Orthodox sector but set the tone for many a public issue.
Not a single 'mehadrin line' has been opened in the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak. Furthermore, none of the public figures who identity as ultra-Orthodox – such as MK Moshe Gafni or Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman – have never uttered a word, neither good nor bad, about these mehadrin lines. This is not their battle, nor is it the central battle of the ultra-Orthodox sector. Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz is much more to blame for the mehadrin line than Gafni.
It's hard to know whether the current public debate will have any real impact on the relationship between the ultra-Orthodox minority and the non ultra-Orthodox majority, but it is clear that the outside noise is reverberating inside the home of the leader of the non-Hasidic ultra-Orthodox Jews, the 'sage of this generation', Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv.
Among those in the house of the 'sage of this generation', there now rages an intense and fascinating argument over what should be its true position regarding the mehadrin lines.
Although Rav Elyashiv is signatory to the 'kol koreh' document compiled a few years ago in favor of bus segregation, many of his closest associates are coming out to the media these days to clarify just how much they oppose forced segregation.
It is unprecedented for the spokesmen of such a rigid leader - who has never allowed communal opinion or public consideration to sway him from an unpopular stance - to come out one by one after the public media frenzy burst into the secular sphere.
It was also interesting to hear Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, who sees himself as directly subordinate to Rav Elyashiv, declare on the ultra-Orthodox radio station Kol Berama that "if we want there to be segregation, it would be most legitimate for us to create a special bus company for these specific lines, so that we can be their 'landlords'. But as long as they pay as we do, and it is a public company that serves not only the ultra-Orthodox sector, what can we do?"
The incident in which Tanya Rosenblit found herself clashing with her fellow passengers on the bus to Jerusalem was unusual, but not unprecedented. It was not even the most serious incident to have occurred on board the mehadrin lines since they first began roaming a decade ago, as the High Court itself has clarified.
This particular incident has just emerged at a perfect time, when every event somewhat related – whether it is in fact or not – to the headline "Exclusion of Women from Public Spaces" is a potential bomb.
The age-old daily phenomena, such as segregation in public swimming pools, have suddenly been sensationalized into front page news, without opponents stopping to consider that there is no actual exclusion of women at these pools, that the hours are just divided for women and men accordingly; without stopping to consider that there is nothing new here under the sun.
What is new are the phenomena occurring on a much smaller level, those with high media profile, concerning the modesty revolution spiraling among the traditional religious circles, particularly among those who have become more religiously fervent than their parents.
One such phenomenon, which has angered the general population and with good reason, are the incidents involving the Israel Defense Forces soldiers – most of them graduates of nationalist Orthodox yeshivas – who refuse to be present at public ceremonies where women are singing.
This group of soldiers has received the backing of prominent rabbis, including Rabbi Elyakim Levanon of Yeshivat Elon Moreh, who believes that the army has ceased to be a Jewish army.
Another such phenomenon is that of the shawl-draped 'taliban' women on the fringes of the ultra-Orthodox society, who have stirred a stormy debate of late within the Haredi sector.
In both of these phenomena, the controversy began first as internal debate before emerging into the public sector. Suddenly, every separate swimming hour held at the university pools looks like the ayatollah regime has descended.