Committee Sees Overwhelming Public Support for Separated Bus Line Ahead of Recommendation

The Transportation Ministry committee dealing with special bus lines for the ultra-Orthodox population, the so-called Kosher lines, has wrapped itself in total secrecy in advance of submiting its recommendations to the High Court of Justice in a few weeks.

But with the public hearing phase ending, preliminary details of the materials presented to the committee in preparation of its policy recommendations are now becoming clear.

The committee, headed by Transportation Ministry deputy director general Alex Langer, received 6,300 written comments from the public asking for the operation of such special lines around the country. Such bus lines would have separate seating for men and women. Some 1,300 wrote in objecting to the lines, including about 100 from the ultra-Orthodox community.

Most of these comments against the Kosher lines were anonymous, but this week a relatively unknown yeshiva head from Bnei Brak, Rabbi Yosef Haim Nakash, raised a storm when he published a signed article on the well-known ultra-Orthodox Internet site Bechadrei Chadarim. Nakash came out strongly against those not only demanding separation of the sexes on buses but even on the street.

"When did such a prohibition emerge that a married couple is not allowed to sit next to each other," he asked. "The public is not willing! At least a large part [of the public] is interested in being with their family, as has been customary for generations... At this rate, in a few years, or even months, we will not be able to leave the house together," wrote Nakash.

His words caused quite a stir as they are seen as contradicting the words of the more famous ultra-Orthodox rabbis who are leading the battle for expanding the separate bus lines.

In the meantime, the committee is finishing up its work. In addition to the written comments and testimony, the committee also heard dozens of representatives from a broad spectrum of groups ranging from a rabbinical commission on transportation, through legal experts and academics, and including women's organizations objecting to the lines - or at least demanding strict limitations on such bus lines.

The High Court ordered the establishment of the committee as part of its hearing of a suit against the operation of such separate lines. A group of women petitioned the court saying they were harmed by the treatment they received from passengers and drivers on these special lines. Author Naomi Ragen was one of the plaintiffs, along with the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, the Israeli branch of the Reform movement.

In January the High Court ordered the transportation minister to establish a professional forum to formulate policy for operating such lines, both within cities and between cities. The recommendations were to be based on the ten years of experience in operating such lines, and to do so in within the limits of "tolerance and common sense," ordered the High Court.

The panel of judges, headed by Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, issued a temporary order at the time stating they were "starting from the assumption that there was no prohibition against separated buses in response to the needs of the ultra-Orthodox public." The justices said this was also in line with the plaintiffs' own views.

The Transportation Ministry said yesterday the committee is expected to present its recommendation within a month.