A woman who reported a vicious attack by an ad-hoc "modesty patrol" on a Jerusalem bus last month is now lining up support for her case and may be included in a petition to the High Court of Justice over the legality of sex-segregated buses.
Miriam Shear says she was traveling to pray at the Western Wall in Jerusalem's Old City early on November 24 when a group of ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) men attacked her for refusing to move to the back of the Egged No. 2 bus. She is now in touch with several legal advocacy and women's organizations, and at the same time, waiting for the police to apprehend her attackers.
In her first interview since the incident, Shear says that on the bus three weeks ago, she was slapped, kicked, punched and pushed by a group of men who demanded that she sit in the back of the bus with the other women. The bus driver, in response to a media inquiry, denied that violence was used against her, but Shear's account has been substantiated by an unrelated eyewitness on the bus who confirmed that she sustained an unprovoked "severe beating."
Shear, an American-Israeli woman who currently lives in Canada, says that on a recent five-week vacation to Israel, she rode the bus daily to the Old City to pray at sunrise. Though not defined by Egged as a sex-segregated "mehadrin" bus, women usually sit in the back, while men sit in the front, as a matter of custom.
"Every two or three days, someone would tell me to sit in the back, sometimes politely and sometimes not," she recalled this week in a telephone interview. "I was always polite and said 'No. This is not a synagogue. I am not going to sit in the back.'"
But Shear, a 50-year-old religious woman, says that on the morning of the 24th, a man got onto the bus and demanded her seat - even though there were a number of other seats available in the front of the bus.
"I said, I'm not moving and he said, 'I'm not asking you, I'm telling you.' Then he spat in my face and at that point, I was in high adrenaline mode and called him a son-of-a-bitch, which I am not proud of. Then I spat back. At that point, he pushed me down and people on the bus were screaming that I was crazy. Four men surrounded me and slapped my face, punched me in the chest, pulled at my clothes, beat me, kicked me. My snood [hair covering] came off. I was fighting back and kicked one of the men in his privates. I will never forget the look on his face."
Shear says that when she bent down in the aisle to retrieve her hair covering, "one of the men kicked me in the face. Thank God he missed my eye. I got up and punched him. I said, 'I want my hair covering back' but he wouldn't give it to me, so I took his black hat and threw it in the aisle."
Throughout the encounter, Shear says the bus driver "did nothing." The other passengers, she says, blamed her for not moving to the back of the bus and called her a "stupid American with no sechel [common sense.] People blamed me for not knowing my place and not going to the back of the bus where I belong."
According to Yehoshua Meyer, the eyewitness to the incident, Shear's account is entirely accurate. "I saw everything," he said. "Someone got on the bus and demanded that she go to the back, but she didn't agree. She was badly beaten and her whole body sustained hits and kicks. She tried to fight back and no one would help her. I tried to help, but someone was stopping me from getting up. My phone's battery was dead, so I couldn't call the police. I yelled for the bus driver to stop. He stopped once, but he didn't do anything. When we finally got to the Kotel [Western Wall], she was beaten badly and I helped her go to the police."
Shear says that when she first started riding the No. 2 line, she did not even know that it was sometimes sex-segregated. She also says that sitting in the front is simply more comfortable. "I'm a 50-year-old woman and I don't like to sit in the back. I'm dressed appropriately and I was on a public bus."
"It is very dangerous for a group of people to take control over a public entity and enforce their will without going through due process," she said. "Even if they [Haredim who want a segregated bus] are a majority - and I don't think they are - they have options available. They can petition Egged or hire their own private line. But as long as it's a public bus, I don't care if there are 500 people telling me where to sit. I can sit wherever I want and so can anyone else."
Meyer says that throughout the incident, the other passengers blamed Shear for not sitting in the back. "They'll probably claim that she attacked them first, but that's totally untrue. She was abused terribly, and I've never seen anything like it."
Word of Shear's story traveled quickly after she forwarded an e-mail detailing her experience. She has been contacted by a number of groups, including Shatil, the New Israel Fund's Empowerment and Training Center for Social Change; Kolech, a religious women's forum; the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), the legal advocacy arm of the local Reform movement; and the Jewish Orthodox Feminist Alliance (JOFA).
In the coming month, IRAC will be submitting a petition to the High Court of Justice against the Transportation Ministry over the issue of segregated Egged buses. IRAC attorney Orly Erez-Likhovski is in touch with Shear and is considering including her in the petition.
Although the No. 2 Jerusalem bus where the incident occurred is not actually defined as a mehadrin line, Erez-Likhovski says that Shear's story is further proof that the issue requires legal clarification. About 30 Egged buses are designated as mehadrin, mostly on inter-city lines, but they are not marked to indicate this. "There's no way to identify a mehadrin bus, which in itself is a problem," she said.
"Theoretically, a person can sit wherever they want, even on a mehadrin line, but we're seeing that people are enforcing [the gender segregation] even on non-mehadrin lines and that's the part of the danger," she said.
On a mehadrin bus, women enter and exit through the rear door, and the seats from the rear door back are generally considered the "women's section." A child is usually sent forward to pay the driver.
The official responses
In a response from Egged, the bus driver denied that Shear was physically attacked in any way.
"In a thorough inquiry that we conducted, we found that the bus driver does not confirm that any violence was used against the complainant," Egged spokesman Ron Ratner wrote.
"According to the driver, once he saw that there was a crowd gathering around her, he stopped the bus and went to check what was going on. He clarified to the passengers that the bus was not a mehadrin line and that all passengers on the line are permitted to sit wherever they want on the bus. After making sure that the passengers returned to their seats, he continued driving."
The Egged response also noted that their drivers "are not able and are not authorized to supervise the behavior of the passengers in all situations."
Ministry of Transportation spokesperson Avner Ovadia said in response that the mehadrin lines are "the result of agreements reached between Egged and Haredi bodies" and are therefore unconnected to the ministry.
A spokesperson for the Jerusalem police said the case is still under investigation.