London Girl in the Eye of an Israeli Bus Gender Segregation Storm

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The last thing that Rachel Rosenfeld expected when she arrived in Israel four weeks ago was to find herself at the center of an uproar around gender segregation on public transportation that would cause ultra-Orthodox protesters to smash bus windows in angry protests.

“It’s been a big shock that this little thing that happened to me expanded into a big story involving the police and newspapers and television news.”

But that is precisely what happened after a couple who asked her to move to the back of a bus travelling from Beit Shemesh to Bnei Brak was arrested.

Rosenfeld says it was the bus driver who decided to call the police, and who took action after Rosenfeld was asked repeatedly by a Haredi husband and wife to move to the back of the bus.

After initial hesitation, she had gone to the back willingly, contrary to what was widely reported in the Israeli media. “When I saw all of the news coverage, it was wrong. They said the couple forced me to go to the back and I wasn’t willing to go. That’s not what happened.”

It was only after police, responding to the bus driver’s call, stopped the bus and arrested the Haredi couple that rioters in Beit Shemesh started attacking buses - though not the one Rosenfeld was on, which was already far out of the city.

The soft-spoken 27-year-old doctor is Orthodox, dresses modestly and covers her hair. She immigrated to Israel from London, Great Britain three years ago and lived in Jerusalem. Just a year after she arrived in the country, she and her husband Pavel relocated to the Ukraine as emissaries for the Jewish Agency. After returning to Israel four weeks ago from Kiev. the couple was temporarily staying with family in Beit Shemesh until they got resettled. On Wednesday, Rosenfeld boarded the 497 bus from Beit Shemesh to B’nai Brak to visit other relatives, carrying a large bag, and juggling her two young children, aged two and five months, holding the infant in a sling.

“I sat down in the bus in the front - I sat in the first place I could find. With my bag and two kids, it was hard for me to move anywhere else. The bus was empty. Then two Haredi men got on, we went two more stops and more people came in. Then a woman came to me and she said to me, “You know this bus is mehadrin” (a particularly strict level of religious observance).

At first Rosenfeld didn’t understand what the woman was saying to her. “I know about mehadrin food, but I'd never heard of a mehadrin bus. I couldn’t figure out what she meant. So then she told me that on this bus, women sit in the back, and men in front. I told her it was hard for me to move with the kids and the bag, and she said she would help me.” The woman’s explanation for why Rosenfeld had to move was “there were avrechim (full-time yeshiva students) on the bus,that they don’t want to look at women.”

The bus driver overheard the conversation, and “said she should stop saying anything to me or he would call the police.”

In response, “A Haredi man - I think it was her husband but I’m not sure, said back to him, ‘Call the police, call the police!’”

All this happened before Rosenfeld had had a chance to respond to the woman’s request. “I was willing to go to the back, I didn’t want to make it hard for them. I was willing to respect them.”

Still, about a half hour into the journey to B’nai Brak, the bus was stopped by police, who questioned Rosenfeld and then arrested the couple.

“The police asked me what happened. I told him what the woman said to me, and that she was very polite and nice and she didn’t do anything wrong...It’s not that the couple forced me to go back, they were really nice about it and they felt it was the right thing to do...If they had yelled at me and humiliated me I would have reacted differently. I wouldn’t have had a problem complaining to the police. But it wasn’t the case.”

After the arrest, the bus continued on its journey. Rosenfeld only found out later that the incident had triggered the violence in Beit Shemesh and that she had unwittingly become the focus of the national evening news.

From her story, it appears that both the driver and the police had been acting in accordance with the 2011 Supreme Court ruling and Transportation Ministry directives requiring public transportation companies not to discriminate between passengers in any way and to do everything possible to prevent coercion or violence.

In Rosenfeld’s case, it appears that there was an almost indistinguishable fine line between complying with a request and being coerced that must have been extremely difficult for the driver to navigate, and erring on the side of protecting a passenger,decided to call the police.

Rosenfeld said that while she really didn’t want to move, she didn’t feel that she was ‘forced’ and was willing to accede to the request because of the woman’s polite tone and particularly because she offered to help her with the bags and the children. She explained that having grown up in a section of the London neighborhood of Stamford Hill, she was accustomed to living alongside a haredi population and taking their sensibilities into account.

“I think it’s very important to respect other people’s religions and beliefs...I’m not haredi but, I’m religious and I respect what they do on buses, though I wouldn’t have done such a thing myself. If I saw a woman dealing with two small children, or an old woman, I wouldn’t tell them to go to the back ... but I wasn’t interested in making a fuss. I didn’t want to make a fuss and I didn’t want the bus driver to call the police. I wanted to go in the back.”

Still, she said, when choosing her new home in Israel, she planned to steer clear of neighborhood where friction over religion has triggered violent incidents like the one that took place on Wednesday following the arrests. “I wouldn’t want to live in Mea Shearim or B’nai Brak, and I wouldn’t want to live in Beit Shemesh.”

Rachel Rosenfeld and one of her children.Credit: Emil Salman
Ultra-Orthodox men riding a sex-segregated bus in Jerusalem. Credit: Emil Salman

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