Let the Haredim Walk

Those who have a problem with men and women traveling together are the Haredim, and they are the ones who are kindly requested to run after the light rail.

At least once a week I take a shared taxi from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem. Arrayed at the departure point next to Tel Aviv's central bus station are generally a wide range of passengers, including secular and religious Jews, Arabs and foreign workers. Once inside the vehicle, they take their places on a first-come, first-seated basis.

Jerusalem segregated bus Emil Salman
Emil Salman

At the departure point in Jerusalem, off Jaffa Street, by contrast, arguments regularly break out over seating arrangements. In Jerusalem, seating isn't determined by the order in which passengers get on, but by their sex.

Once every few rides I am asked to move my seat for an ultra-Orthodox woman (lest she be forced to sit beside a man ) or an ultra-Orthodox man (since my insistence on sitting in a window seat could, heaven forfend, force him to sit next to me, someone who appears to be in a chronic state of ritual impurity ).

Why do the same seating arrangements that seem so obvious to the Haredim getting on in Tel Aviv provoke such prolonged debates when they board in Jerusalem? The riddle has two correct answers. First, natural selection reigns in Jerusalem, and the secular simply defer to the Haredim and their shows of strength. Second, in Jerusalem, nothing is sacred.

There are secular travelers who defer to the religious. I do not. More than once the driver has tried to intercede to persuade me to change seats, but to no avail. If, like doctors, drivers of shared taxis kept files, I would be the one they would probably label as an "anxious/difficult" passenger, rather than the ultra-Orthodox men and women trying to impose their sex discrimination on public transit vehicles.

The fact is that my refusal to yield has never caused a Haredi traveler to get out of the taxi. There is always another passenger, someone more soft-hearted than me, who backs down. But only in Jerusalem. In the den of sin known as Tel Aviv, they don't dare overstep their bounds.

We may call this Jerusalem-based variety of capitulation by other names - pluralism or tolerance, perhaps - but in the end, it is simply surrender to the dictates of a specific and extreme interpretation of Judaism, one that distorts the faith into one that discriminates against women.

Because of this acquiescence in Jerusalem - as well as in Safed, Beit Shemesh, Tiberias and other cities undergoing rapid Haredization - the CEO of the firm set to operate the Jerusalem light rail has raised the possibility of designating separate train cars for men and women, for financial reasons. In his defense, he did say that if people want it, they'll use it and if they don't want it, they won't.

But the Haredim will, of course, want to, and what is suggested as an option will quickly become an obligation, as with sex segregation on Egged's "mehadrin" bus lines. Excessive deference to the sensitivities of the ultra-Orthodox will quickly lead to public funds being used toward discrimination against women.

On this matter, we may take a page from Golda Meir. At a Knesset hearing on barring women from leaving their homes after 11 P.M., in an ostensible attempt to protect them, Meir said that as far as she knew, it was the men who were behaving violently, and therefore they were the ones who were kindly requested to stay home after dark.

Those who have a problem with men and women traveling together are the Haredim, and they are the ones who are kindly requested to run after the light rail.