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Israeli women have been under pressure for years to sit in the back of buses that serve strictly religious Jews. Like Rosa Parks, women are beginning to fight back against discrimination. A young solider named Doron Matalon said she was at the front of the bus after a night shift at her Jerusalem base on Wednesday morning last week. When an ultra-Orthodox man boarded the bus, he told her to go sit in the back. “I said that I have the right to sit here,” she stated. “Then a commotion ensued, and other people gathered around and started shouting…. It was scary.”
The situation drew media attention and highlighted tensions in Israel as ultra-Orthodox Jews move beyond Jerusalem’s urban enclaves and Bnei Brak, a Tel Aviv suburb where they have resided for decades. As they look for jobs and houses in new areas, they interact more with mainstream Israelis, who view their strict religious code as a threat to democracy. “It’s a slippery slope. What starts with women boarding the bus in the back because of modesty can end up with women not voting,” affirmed Mickey Gitzin, the director of Be Free Israel, a nonprofit that promotes religious pluralism. “It could turn Israeli society into a segregated society in which women don’t have a place in public life.”
Public outrage grew this past week following a news report on the harassment of an eight-year-old girl by a group of ultra-Orthodox men. They thought she was dressed immodestly, so they spat on her and accused her of being a prostitute. This event caused thousands of people to protest against the segregation of women on December 27. A counterprotest followed two days later, which resulted in clashes in Beit Shemesh and Jerusalem.
The Haredi rabbis of Beit Shemesh claimed their women voluntarily observed the segregation and modesty rules for their own honor. Other ultra-Orthodox Jews do not disagree with the segregation of men and women, but went on the defensive, one man, Israel Eichler, saying “The problem is that they want to make a secular state in the Holy Land. That’s what creates the friction.” He is a parliament member from the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party. Eichler thinks that the secular media of Israel is focusing on the discrimination against women as a way to attack Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a political ally of the Haredis, who has denounced the segregation of men and women in the past.
Since the first public buses went into operation 14 years ago in Jerusalem, discrimination against women has grown to men-only sidewalks in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, the steady disappearance of women from Jerusalem’s billboards, and segregated waiting rooms at health clinics. Haredi birthrates are double the average families in Israel, and economists believe that since Haredi men do not work, they will hurt the economy. The liberal Israel Religious Action Center petitioned the Supreme Court to ban segregation on public buses after complaints of discrimination were made. In January 2011, the court said forced segregation was illegal, but the buses could continue to operate for one year on a voluntary basis.
Their ruling showed the problem Israel’s government faces in deciding how to address religious and national groups that do not accept its principles. “The deeper question is how does a democracy deal with separatist fundamentalist communities in its midst,” asserted Yossi Klein Halevi, a fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute in Jerusalem. “Israel’s great domestic challenge is to figure out the balance between allowing cultural autonomy and reinforcing its sovereign authority.” The one-year trial period is about to end, and petitioners say that they will bring up the issue with the Supreme Court again. However, Matalon believes it might be too late. She is afraid of riding the bus and no longer uses it out of her fear of being harassed. “It wasn’t the first time and it won’t be the last time,” she said.
Image Courtesey of Alex E. Proimos