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Where are the Mehadrin buses taking us – On gender separation on buses

Is the approval of bus lines, on which men sit in the front and women in the back, an expression of cultural tolerance or perhaps a hechsher (permit) to oppress and exclude women? Does the obligation of a democratic society to protect the culture of a minority override the responsibility to maintain basic values? And does the issue of Mehadrin buses constitute a self-righteous attack on the Ultra-Orthodox sector? Does it distract attention from other types of segregation, or does it touch on the core ethical questions that should be of concern to Israeli citizens? Professor Avi Sagi, Professor Adi Ophir and Dr. Iris Brown offer their opinions.

Is the approval of bus lines, on which men sit in the front and women in the back, an expression of cultural tolerance or perhaps a hechsher (permit) to oppress and exclude women? Does the obligation of a democratic society to protect the culture of a minority override the responsibility to maintain basic values? And does the issue of Mehadrin buses constitute a self-righteous attack on the Ultra-Orthodox sector? Does it distract attention from other types of segregation, or does it touch on the core ethical questions that should be of concern to Israeli citizens? Professor Avi Sagi, Professor Adi Ophir and Dr. Iris Brown offer their opinions.

Professor Avi Sagi

How should we relate to inequality within an egalitarian culture? That question immediately arises in the issue of Mehadrin bus lines. As a starting point, it is important to mention that although equality is a central value in the democratic-liberal culture, which has been adopted by the State of Israel, it does not necessarily override the other central values of this culture. Thus, in certain cases, other values are liable to override it, on the condition that these are values that serve the society as a whole and are consistent with its values. However, inequality that is the result of segregating women on buses is not the fulfillment of any general value of higher importance. On the contrary, it is founded on a position forced on society by powerful interest groups that operate under the auspices of the State.
Another central argument that is often brought up to justify this inequality is based on the right of a minority to maintain its culture. This right is anchored in the centrality of culture in human society and therefore it is the obligation of a democratic society to protect cultures in general and the cultures of minorities in particular. The key question is whether based on this right the State has an obligation to allow a non-egalitarian practice to exist in the public domain that is under its responsibility. In my opinion, the answer is no. The principle of a right to a culture is meant to enable members of that culture to preserve their memory, myths and ethos. But it must not obligate the State to allow the implementation of practices that infringe on basic moral values, using the justification that morals and values are relative and culture-dependent.  

Hashminiya. Billboard in the new campaign to prevent discrimination in the public domain. Photo: public relations.
This position is based on the recognition that there are basic moral values that have universal validity and as a result there is an obligation – and not just an option – to intervene in any place where those values are being significantly infringed upon. And this applies within a minority community as well. The right to maintain a culture creates an obligation to allow the culture to prosper but in no way does it permit the violation of basic rights that are common to all people. The segregation of women is a violation of the basic respect for women and the respect of anyone who believes that all people have unconditional worth.
It is impossible to ignore the “ethical” source of the practice of segregation: a culture in which the woman is characterized as the ultimate seductress who should be kept away from is one that deprives a woman of her freedom. Not only the consequences of this practice bother me but also the very idea of labeling women and segregating them, which constitutes an ever-expanding infringement on their freedom and their right to be present in the public domain.
Moreover, this practice was designed by men and in the interests of men in a particular society. The right to maintain a culture does not grant power to the hegemonial class in a particular society – men in this instance. This claim is valid even if women declare that they are in favor of the practice. No one has the right to downplay the infringement of another’s rights and no one has the right to serve as someone else’s mouthpiece in order to justify this infringement. In the case of injustice, there is no room for discussing the rights of the perpetrator; rather there is an obligation to prevent the infringement. And women, all women, all those that have the right to consume this public service, are the ones hurt. And not just them but also any man who is sensitive to pain and injustice.
Someone who agrees today to remove women to the back of the bus is someone who agrees to remove them to the rear of the public domain. And someone who creates a separation between people also creates a hierarchy among them.
Professor Adi Ophir
It took me a while to understand exactly what I was being asked. Why is the demand by the ultra-Orthodox for separation between the genders on the bus getting so much special attention? Ultra-Orthodox men and women are separated in many places – in the synagogue, in school, at weddings. They even have separate beaches; in other words separate days for swimming in the ocean. This is by the way a convenient and cost-saving setup for public transportation as well. Men will travel on odd days and women on even days (the opposite of the beach days since it’s inconceivable that women would spend Friday on the beach). Who really cares? Why are people who live under a regime of separation, that their whole existence involves separation – innumerable separations – who force separation on others and willingly tolerate the many separations that are forced on them – why are they suddenly waking up when the issue is separation of men and women on buses that service ultra-Orthodox communities? What separates this separation from all the others: between ultra-Orthodox communities and national religious communities and non-religious communities and Arab communities; between boys and girls in the schools and between schools for Jews and schools for Arabs; between roads for Jews and roads for non-Jews; between the settlers and the invisible Palestinian subjects among them and on whose land they live on; between these Palestinians and the land still left to them, and their parents in Gaza, and their children that went abroad to study and can no longer return. And the list goes on and on.

Misleading the masses. An announcement in Jerusalem, from the site “Ofek Olami.” Photo: David Netanel, lecturer and tour guide in Israel and worldwide.
But perhaps this separation is special since it isn’t just a separation within the ultra-Orthodox community but rather is a separation that they are trying to force on “us” – those who are not willing to have separations forced on them. Indeed, when it comes to separations, it is worthwhile separating between forced separations and willing separations. A civilized country should respect willing separations and sometimes even allocate resources to them. (Yes, funding for education in communities that request separation, in the same way that state education receives funding.) A civilized country should eliminate forced separations and in general also allocate resources in order to overcome barriers created by institutionalized habits of separation. Before we begin seriously looking at the question of whether this support gives the State the right to intervene in the character of separate education or in the conditions for acceptance to communal settlements, it is worthwhile remembering that our State is not a civilized one. It grossly intervenes in willing separations and uses violence to impose separations that should not exist. And it imposes a great many such separations and uses the separated citizens – to whom separation has become an accepted phenomenon – in order to impose on them by force. First and foremost, this of course means separation between citizens and non-citizens. This separation is not just a matter of policy that can be changed, it is in fact the nature of our regime. There is segregation everywhere; look around you. Before you go crazy that a community, whose whole existence is based on willing separations, is asking for another one in another sphere of life, check how many portions of separation you drink with your morning coffee.
Dr. Iris Brown
Before I present my position on the issue, I would like to point out that the discussion of this question is only on a theoretical level rather than a practical one that involves unacceptable behavior of one type or another on the Mehadrin buses in cases where a woman ended up in the front of the bus due to circumstances and encountered animosity and humiliation.
First of all, we need to look at what bothers us about separation on the bus lines: is it the separation between the genders itself or perhaps the way in which it is implemented, i.e. women at the back and men at the front. The second problem is easy to solve in theory – a barrier can be set up lengthwise in the bus and men will be allocated one side and the women the other (as is done, for example, in the ultra-Orthodox community of Monsey in the US). However, the first problem is more substantive and can only be solved by not permitting segregation on the buses. We need therefore to focus the problem and try to understand why this separation gets us riled up. In general, the argument assumes that this is a “charged issue” that deals with the status of women in a traditional and patriarchal society and the focus of the discussion is the ultra-Orthodox community’s various values of modesty, whether this means the prohibition of the genders mixing (a mixed society) or whether it means the prohibition of looking at or even thinking about a woman. In general, the question under discussion as part of the debate over segregated bus lines is whether the values of a minority reflect discrimination against women and, if they do, should we respect the values of a minority when they infringe on the value of equality (for example, articles in the third volume of the magazine Alei Mishpat – August 2003).
However, it appears to me that these are not the questions that need to be asked in this case. Essentially, this is a relatively neutral issue on which other issues are being overlaid. In contrast to what is widely believed, the reason for segregated buses is not modesty but rather a far more prosaic issue: the crowding that exists on the buses. Although crowding constitutes a halachic problem due to the resulting violations of modesty, if conditions were less crowded on the buses it is unlikely that the question would have arisen. The problem of crowding on the buses is more acute in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods, both because they are heavy consumers of public transportation and because of the high population density in those communities. It is a fact that crowding on buses leads to people rubbing up against one another, which is in general not intentional. When this occurs between individuals of the same gender it is tolerable but this is not the case if it occurs between the genders. And when it is intentional, i.e. sexual harassment, it is absolutely not to be tolerated. Segregated bus lines are meant to prevent people from rubbing up against each other in a society that is particularly sensitive to the issue of modesty and touching between the sexes. I assume that when the current solution, i.e. Mehadrin buses, was decided on, it wasn’t just the secularists who blew it out of proportion for their own purposes but the ultra-Orthodox as well, in the name of modesty. Therefore, I would sum up by saying that although the questions that are often asked within this context are important and productive, it seems to me that in this specific case they are less relevant.
Professor Avi Sagi is the director of the Program for the Study of Commentary and Culture and a lecturer in the Department of Philosophy at Bar Ilan University, as well as a Senior Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.
Professor Adi Ophir teaches at the Cohen Institute for the History and Philosophy of Science and Ideas at Tel Aviv University. He is head of the Lexicon for Political Thought project at the Minerva Center for Liberal Arts and a Senior Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.
Dr. Iris Brown is a lecturer in Jewish Philosophy at the Lander Institute in Jerusalem and a Research Fellow at the Shalom Hartman Institute.

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