Nur Bar-On was waiting on Thursday near the International Convention Center in Jerusalem for the No. 402 Egged bus to the largely ultra-Orthodox Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak. At around 4 P.M. the bus came, but Bar-On said the driver refused to allow her and the other women waiting at the stop to board, claiming that “there was room only for men.”
The Transportation Ministry’s National Public Transport Authority said that, after the Israel Religious Action Center of the Reform Judaism movement filed a complaint on the matter, the incident would be investigated and the driver and the bus company summoned. Egged said it has launched its own investigation and would not tolerate discrimination. It added that the driver, whose services were contracted from a subcontractor, disputes Bar-On's account.
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“The bus stop was full of people,” Bar-On said. “We got in line to board the bus. The driver stopped, opened the door, and stood on the steps of the bus, blocking the entrance, and announced ‘there’s room for 12 men.’ He started to pick men out of the line.”
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Shortly after that, Bar-On said she approached the door and the driver prevented her from getting on, boarding two men standing behind her instead. When she asked the driver why, she said the driver explained that “they,” referring to passengers already on the bus, “only ride when men and women are separated, and there was room only for men.” Egged responded in a statement that the driver is from Yahad, a company to which Egged outsources service on Bus 402. “When the incident came to light the heads of the company and the driver were questioned and the driver was also summoned to appear before Egged’s oversight committee, due to the seriousness of the allegations and the incident. The driver vehemently denied the allegation. He said it was apparently a matter of a miscommunication. The matter is expected to be studied more thoroughly in the coming days.”
Egged also said that it would demand that Yahad “instruct its drivers and ensure zero tolerance for exclusion and racism on public transportation.” Egged “does not and will not accept any case of exclusion of or improper attitude toward women or any other group,” the company said, adding that its drivers are instructed on an ongoing basis on preventing discrimination of any kind.”
Egged added that “until this unusual matter is clarified by professionals, we apologize for the sense of dissatisfaction of the customer on Bus 402, without reference to the outcome of the investigation into this serious incident.”
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The incident reportedly only took a few minutes. Bar-On, who takes the No. 402 bus from time to time, managed to note the license number of the bus, and had to wait for the next one. According to what she was told by the driver, she said it appeared the back of the bus was already filled with women.
“I have already had arguments with other passengers over where I’m allowed to sit. Once, ultra-Orthodox men shouted at me for ten minutes that I was crazy. They stopped only after I threatened that I would start singing,” she said, a reference to the view by some observant Jews that halakha, Jewish religious law, prohibits men from hearing women sing.
“How much can you fight? I asked myself why I should fight, but this is too important,” Bar-On said. As opposed to her other experiences, Bar-On alleged that this was the first time the driver took an active part in separating men and women on the bus en route to the ultra-Orthodox Tel Aviv suburb. “A few years ago, when gender separation began on the buses, people told me it wasn’t so bad to be told were to sit, as long as we get were we’re going. I remember saying that someday, they would also tell me not to get on the bus, and that’s what happened on Thursday.”
In the Israel Religious Action Center’s complaint, its lawyer Meital Arbel asserted that the driver’s actions were discriminatory and a clear violation of the law and legal precedent. Among other things, she cited a ruling by the High Court of Justice which she said deemed such discrimination a “breach of equality and dignity,” ruling that “no restrictions should be compelled regarding separation on public transportation even if the [bus] lines serve the ultra-Orthodox.”
She also stated that the High Court had ruled that “it is the bus company’s responsibility to ensure that the rights of the passengers are maintained, and that any female passenger may board from any door and sit in any vacant seat.” The driver’s actions, Arbel wrote, not only did not protect Bar-On’s right to board the bus and sit where she chose, but actually prevented her from boarding.
Bar-On and the IRAC lawyer are demanding 50,000 shekels (about $14,000) in compensation from Egged, that disciplinary action be taken against the driver who allegedly refused to allow women on the bus, and that Egged immediately issue a reminder to drivers not to discriminate. They are also demanding greater monitoring of the conduct of drivers on the No. 402 bus and other lines.
An official in the National Public Transportation Authority said there is no room for interpretation. “We do not intend to be flexible in this matter. As in other cases, this time too we will summon the driver and the company to look into the matter, which could lead to criminal action.”