Many Americans know about Rosa Parks, who became the “mother of the modern-day civil rights movement,” when she refused to surrender her seat to a white male passenger on a Montgomery, Ala., bus, on Dec. 1, 1955. Parks’ arrest sparked the 13-month Montgomery bus boycott, which led to the Supreme Court ruling that racially segregated public buses are illegal. The president of the Montgomery Improvement Association was a Christian minister, Martin Luther King, Jr., who galvanized the nonviolent movement to dismantle Jim Crow, the system of American apartheid in the South.
Now Israel has a “Rosa Parks” — her name is Yocheved Horowitz, and she belongs to the ultra-Orthodox Gur community in Ashdod. In December, according to a report by Tamar Rotem in Haaretz, Horowitz boarded an Egged bus in her religious enclave in Ashdod, and took a seat in the second row. The bus on the 451 line was heading to Jerusalem.
“It quickly became clear that this simple, everyday act — choosing a seat to her liking — was enough to transform her presence in the bus into a palpable challenge to the rest of the passengers,” wrote Rotem. “I sat down across from the woman, fearing the worst.”
A hubbub ensued as a bearded man seated behind the journalist called out, “Women to the back. To the back, to the back.” Others shouted out, “Mehadrin” — a term that usually refers to the highest certification standard for kosher food.
Horowitz challenged the notion that the front of the bus was a “men’s area,” according to Rotem, and she questioned the concept of mehadrin being applied to bus seating: “What is mehadrin? Are you talking about an etrog, a lulav [ritual items used during Sukkot]? Nowhere in rabbinical law does it say that it is forbidden to sit behind a woman, not in the Shulchan Aruch and not in the Yoreh De’ah [two classical compilations of Jewish law]. What is written in the Torah and in rabbinical law is that it is forbidden to humiliate sons and daughters of Israel.”
The controversy about gender segregation on buses and in public spaces continues to escalate — with many concluding that the ultra-Orthodox protests against women being in proximity to men creates the widespread impression of Israel as a religious theocracy, like Saudi Arabia or Iran.
A case in point is Beit Shemesh, a town west of Jerusalem, where haredi, ultra-Orthodox, men rioted last week, after authorities removed a sign instructing women not to linger on a public street. The haredim have waged a campaign of intimidation against what they see as immodestly dressed girls attending the Orot school near their neighborhood. In fact, the Modern Orthodox schoolgirls are quite modestly dressed; but a splinter group calling themselves Sicarii — after the “dagger-men” who fought against Roman rule in Jerusalem, in the first century C.E. — is trying to enforce an extreme interpretation of gender segregation. On a recent night in Beit Shemesh, the New York Times reported, benches were removed so that women and their children could not congregate in public.
Israelis were especially outraged after seeing a television news report about eight-year-old Na’ama Margolis, who was afraid to walk to her school in Beit Shemesh because of aggressive harassment by haredi men. A large public demonstration in Beit Shemesh last week was attended by a diverse group of Israelis — reportedly including members of the Israeli Hell’s Angels motorcycle gang — protesting the aggressive tactics of the ultra-religious sect.
There is a concept of modesty in Judaism, which is called tzniut; its mundane observance can be seen clearly in the formal dress of ultra-Orthodox men and women. Women, for example, wear long dresses, and cover their hair with a cloth or a sheitel, wig. The idea is not to attract undue attention to one’s physical attributes. Somehow, this concept has been taken to an extreme level by a faction of ultra-Orthodox men in Israel, and in Hasidic enclaves in New York City. Mayor Michael Bloomberg recently threatened to revoke the city’s contract with a bus company that was running gender-segregated buses in Brooklyn.
And it’s not just my opinion that efforts at gender segregation have been taken to absurd lengths. In a follow-up story in Haaretz, Yocheved Horowitz — again, a member of the Gur hasidim — said: “The Sicarii are insane, and I don’t even consider them religious. Lately everything has become forbidden, and I think that’s extremist and twisted.”
And Rabbi Eliezer Melamed, dean of Yeshiva Har Bracha and a respected authority on Jewish law, recently condemned gender segregation on public buses. “This kind of behavior damages family life,” Melamed wrote in a column for the religious weekly B’Sheva, according to a report last week in the Jerusalem Post.
“According to these principles, a man can’t sit next to his wife, a father can’t sit with his daughter and a mother can’t sit with her son,” wrote Melamed, who termed the stringent gender segregation policies of some in the ultra-Orthodox world as “new inventions.”
To bring peace amid the roiling protests, by the ultra-Orthodox and their opponents, in Beit Shemesh, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu has proposed dividing the city between the ultra-Orthodox, and the less stringently religious and secular Jews. Israel already has a separation barrier that fences off the Palestinian territories; apparently, Netanyahu hopes that a barrier between the haredim and other Israeli Jews will help dissipate tensions.
Netanyahu’s idea was quickly attacked by Yohanan Plesner, a Knesset member from the opposition Kadima Party. “I expected the prime minister to say he plans to halt the distribution of 25,000 new apartments planned in the city exclusively for haredim, and instead he raises this unfeasible idea to divide the city,” Plesner told ynetnews.com, the Web site of the popular Israeli daily Yediot Achronot.
Plesner’s comment highlights the increasing resentment that many Israelis feel toward the haredi sector, whose men largely do not serve in the military and receive government stipends to study in yeshivas rather than work. In my Nov. 28 editorial, which looked at Gershom Gorenberg’s recent book, The Unmaking of Israel, I cited his chapter about the unsustainable growth of the haredim in Israel. Gorenberg noted that the trend of large families and the lack of education geared toward gainful employment will aggravate the impoverishment of the ultra-Orthodox in the years to come.
The “staunch supporters of Israel” will try to minimize the regressive tendencies in the Jewish state; however, those in the Diaspora who truly care about Israel’s future will do what they can to strengthen those campaigning for gender equity, democracy and a free press. Israel will only shoot itself in the foot by coddling religious extremists who defile Judaism and the humane values articulated in the Jewish state’s declaration of independence, which envisioned a country “based on freedom, justice and peace as envisaged by the prophets of Israel,” with the assurance of “complete equality of social and political rights to all its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex.”
There’s absolutely nothing about women sitting at the back of the bus.