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Last Updated: Tuesday, 24 April 2007, 07:43 GMT 08:43 UK
Israel's 'modesty buses' draw fire
By Katya Adler
BBC News, Jerusalem

Woman gets on "modesty bus" in Israel
Women sit separately from men on Israel's "modesty buses"
The other day I was waiting for a bus in downtown Jerusalem. I was in the bustling orthodox Jewish neighbourhood of Mea Sharim and the bus stop was extremely crowded.

When the Number 40 bus arrived, the most curious thing happened. Husbands left heavily pregnant wives or spouses struggling with prams and pushchairs to fend for themselves as they and all other male passengers got on at the front of the bus.

Women moved towards the rear door to get on at the back.

When on the bus, I tried to buck the system, moving my way towards the driver but was pushed back towards the other women.

These are what orthodox Jews call "modesty buses".

The separation system operates on 30 public bus routes across Israel.

The authorities here say the arrangement is voluntary, but in practice, as I found out, there is not much choice involved.

'Abuse and threats'

Naomi Ragen is one of a group of women now taking the separation bus system to court. She is an orthodox Jew herself.

"I wasn't trying to start a revolution, all I wanted to do was get home," she tells me.

"I was in downtown Jerusalem and I saw a bus going straight to my neighbourhood and I got on and sat down, in a single seat behind the driver.

"It was a completely empty bus, and all of a sudden, some men started getting on, ultra-orthodox men. They told me I was not allowed to sit there, I had to go to the back of the bus."

Not only is the segregation system discriminatory, says Ms Ragen, but it can also be dangerous, she says, for those like her who ignore it.

"I said to him look, if you bring me a code of Jewish law and show me where it's written that I have to sit at the back of the bus I'll move.

"And he tried to gain support from the rest of the passengers and I underwent a half-hour of pure hell - abuse, humiliation, threats, even physical intimidation."

'Positive discrimination'

Supporters of the separation system say the buses involved serve mainly religious Jewish neighbourhoods - but not exclusively.

"Modesty bus" in orthodox Jewish neighbourhood in Israel
Men only through the front door of Israel's "modesty buses"
Many passengers are not happy. You will hear complaints at bus stops all over town.

One man told me that if some people wanted segregation buses they should pay a private company to provide them.

Another told me that in a society that is democratic and where the buses are subsidised by the government, a minority's concerns should not override those of the majority.

But Shlomo Rosenstein disagrees. He is a city councillor in Jerusalem where a large proportion of Israel's segregation lines operate.

"This really is about positive discrimination, in women's favour. Our religion says there should be no public contact between men and women, this modesty barrier must not be broken."

Uphill struggle

Opponents of the separation buses face an uphill struggle. Orthodox Jewish leaders are a powerful minority in Israel.

Naomi Ragen says the buses are just part of a wider menacing pattern of behaviour towards women in parts of the orthodox Jewish community.

"They've already cancelled higher education in the ultra-orthodox world for women. They have packed the religious courts with ultra-orthodox judges.

"In some places there are separate sides of the street women have to walk on."

She says that there are signs all over some religious neighbourhoods demanding that women dress modestly.

"They throw paint and bleach at women who aren't dressed modestly and if we don't draw a line in the sand here with this seat on a bus, then I don't know what this country and this religion is going to look like in 20 years," Ms Ragen said.

Petitioners like Naomi Ragen have asked Israel's High Court to either ban the segregation buses altogether or to force bus companies to provide parallel bus routes for passengers wanting to sit where they like.

We invited readers to send in their comments. Here is a selection:

As an American who has chosen to live in Israel, and who travels the buses all the time, I am happy to say that I am quite comfortable on any bus that I ride. The "modesty buses" travel through the most religious neighborhoods here in Jerusalem, and by far the majority of those routes appreciate the effort. I have found that I am always treated politely.

Mrs. Ragen has written numerous books that depict orthodox Judaism as fanatical and demeaning to women. Just because she is outspoken doesn't mean she is correct or that the overwhelming majority of women feel like she does.
Shira W., Jerusalem, Israel

I'm a secular student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. I didn't take a ride on one of these buses. However, one time I got lost in one of those religious streets. It was a cold day and I was covered with layers of clothes, but that didn't seem to be enough. Every religious man who walked down the street there had to tell me something between his teeth. I didn't understand it because it was in Yiddish. I started to run because I was so scared...
Einav Bury, Jerusalem, Israel

Just a few weeks ago I got on a bus to Jerusalem. The front was all men, but I just kept walking to the back. I then realized that it was all women, but I kept walking. Quickly I realized that it must have been a religious group that don't sit together. Oops. But I sat in the back of the bus the whole time in my shorts, tshirt and sandals. I got looks from the women the entire time, but oh well. Fighting the system...
Dovid Glottier, Moshav Shdema, Israel

I ride these "modesty" buses on a daily basis. I think the above article is lacking in a lot of information. The main reason for the segregation came as a public backlash to overcrowded buses particularly in religious neighbourhoods. Things came to a head when, in August 2002 a suicide bomber killed 23 passengers on a bus #2 in the Religious Beis Yisrael neighbourhood. The higher than usual fatalities was a result of overcrowding. Overcrowding in this part of society means that people who lead a spiritually holy life are shoved against the hum and scrum of society. Bear in mind, the National bus company Egged will tell you that Modesty buses are the most successful lines in the country, such as #402 #450 #451 #350 #418.
Aryeh, Jerusalem

I absolutely agree with Ms. Ragen (a wonderful author). The forceful behavior of orthodox Jews in some parts of Israel towards women (non religious as well as religious and even tourists) is appalling. This minority group is usually backed by the government because of political allies and it has gained power in recent years. No intervention is in sight and the only thing to do is try to hold ground, petition and keep the status quo (segregation buses break it for the worse). Israel is mostly secular and democratic and we should strive to keep it that way.
Lior Haner, Ramat Gan, Israel

I live in Israel. I am a Hassidic man, but with a very secular outlook as far as politics are concerned. I detest the religious involvement in purely political issues such as The Law of Return and even those that purport to uphold Jewish Law and modesty, for I am a firm believer in the unalienable right of the individual to decide. However, what is not stressed in your article is that those buses run IN ADDITION to other, non-segregated buses on the same routes. The incidents in your articles are of people who happened to miss the so called secular buses, or chose those buses for other reasons.
Yoel, Jerusalem, Israel

One of the women taking the bus system to court speaks out

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