Rosa Parks Part II: Israeli Women Fight Against Attacks and Segregation on Public Buses

Despite its strong secular traditions, Israel remains a nation with many laws and customs enforced to protect Jewish religious practices. Public buses have long been a danger zone for women who are targeted by ultra-orthodox Jews for wearing trousers or mixing with men. Women have been physically assaulted and are forced to sit in the back of the bus in religious areas. Now, the Israeli Supreme Court is faced with a filing by women who have refused to move to the back of the bus like Rosa Parks.

For many years, women have been physically attacked at the wailing wall when they have tried to pray with the men. Click here Orthodox men insist that women are forbidden even to carry a Torah scroll and cannot wear shawls.

On buses, the most extreme orthodox men have maintained a de facto segregation of women through insults and attacks.

Every time Israeli student Iris Yoffe takes the bus to Jerusalem, she has to be ready for abuse from ultra-Orthodox Jews who say she should be kept off because she’s wearing trousers.Assuming she makes it onto the bus at all — on several occasions groups of Orthodox men have tried to block the door — Yoffe, 24, heads for the “women’s section” at the back of the bus, keeps her head down and tries to ignore the insults.”I end up feeling helpless and humiliated, like an outsider,” said Yoffe, whose public bus from her home in northern Israel to Jerusalem has separate male and female seating because it runs through an ultra-Orthodox community.A row over Israel’s buses underscores the schism between its ultra-Orthodox minority — who believe women should don long skirts and stay away from men in public — and those who want to keep the country, and its public transport system, secular.The controversy started several years ago when, in order to compete with private firms, Israel’s publicly funded bus companies introduced separate seating on some routes through Orthodox areas. Women who board these buses sit at the back.In theory, wearing a skirt and sitting in the women’s section is voluntary, but several secular women including a well-known author have reported being abused and even attacked for not doing so. . . .Naomi Ragen, one of the women behind the High Court petition, said she was insulted and physically threatened when she accidentally boarded a mehadrin bus and refused to move to the back. Another woman was reported to have been spat at and beaten for refusing to move.Ragen, herself an Orthodox Jew, described the incidents on her website as “bullying women in the name of God”.

Clearly, this small minority of Orthodox men should not reflect on their entire community. However, there remains the issue of the tolerance of the state for such sectarian practices of intolerance. It is a civil rights battle that could test Israel’s commitment to secular principles and the separation of temple and state. Notably, the ultra-orthodox community remains a minority in Israel and these men must be a minority in that minority. However, the Israeli political system artificially inflates the power of religious parties — a flaw in their system that has produced years of uncertainty and unease. Israel is a country that would benefit from serious constitutional reform and, frankly, would benefit from a system more like the United States. I know that sounds rather biased. However, the Israeli system continually leaves the majority of citizens subject to the whim of parties with a handful of members in the Knesset. The bus controversy is just one such accommodation made to such extreme minorities. Regardless if it is an official policy, it is a known practice enforced by a small number of intolerant thugs against women — in full view of the government.

The solution seems simple. If men cannot tolerate the appearance of women in their midst, they should hire their own private buses or drive to work. Problem solved.

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5 thoughts on “Rosa Parks Part II: Israeli Women Fight Against Attacks and Segregation on Public Buses”

  1. The answer to this might be simple.

    There is also the issue of ultra-Orthodox Jewry and their refusal to serve in The IDF.

    Make an example of a few of these thugs where instead of a prison sentence they must instead serve in The IDF.

    Failure to properly serve with anything less than an honorable discharge would mean losing their government subsidies for “learning” for up to a lifetime.

    Any further violence this way would work towards some equivalence of a “three strikes your out” policy.

    Indeed, it’s a shame that these people cannot accept the whole concept of the personal freedom of Republicanism; to them Jewish religious law MUST take precedence; well, I say that this is just too bad for them.

  2. I really appreciate that you published this. The comparison to Rosa Parks so so apt. I have included a link to this post in the above listed site. Thanks for helping to give more dimension to my work.

    The whole thing got me to thinking about Sojourner Truth, and I went back and read her “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech where she so elequintly brought together the women’s and movement with the Anti-slavery.

    Parks, just by showing that it was a woman who did it, (although in those days it had to be a woman) who started the whole thing, showed that women have the strength of which Truth spoke.

    And now the women of Israel are the ones who are standing up for themselves, regardless of how many men participate in this form of discrimination.

    It all ties together and thank you for aiding the process.

    Margo Arrowsmith

  3. Professor, while I agree with you that this attack was horrible, as a person that has lived in the middle east for some time, I must correct some of your assumptions here. Israeli Orthodox men, who are largely made up of ashkenazic and sephardic jews (jews from Europe and North Africa, respectively) on the whole do not act aggressively towards women who they feel are substandard in their religous observance. I might add that they don’t act aggressively towards anyone. There is a small minority among the hassidic sects who do behave in this manner when they are faced with any serious breach of their own religous code, such as a state ordered autopsy of one of their own. I traveled on many buses in Israel through religous neighborhoods with irreligous people and never saw such heckling/abuse, though it obviously occurs. This minority of religous Israeli society gives the rest a bad name, though they are relatively few in number.

  4. I would urge everyone to investigate the field of international law and especially how it impinges upon our own constitutional jurisprudence.

    Issues such as the above, point out to the tension between generally accepted human rights standards and the law in local jurisdictions.

    Notwithstanding the US recalcitrance in joining the ICC, and even passing that “Hague Invasion Act”, (OK the Serviceman Protection Act of 2002), the tide will surely albeit slowly turn against parochial and insular legal practices that run counter to evolving international standards.

    Yes, there will be dangers in forfeiting some modicum of national sovereignty, but safeguards can be built in and the system can be made to work.

    As a more local example, remember the recalcitrance the South displayed after Brown and Brown II: the federal courts were compelled to come in to fight against “local standards”. Israel’s women don’t currently enjoy such an intervention.

    But it might be a good thing if they did. 🙂

    In the meantime, Professor Turley’s suggestions about Israeli constitutional reform seem very attractive.

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