Tel Aviv , Asharq Al-Awsat – Today, Israel is witnessing a confrontation that will reach the High Court of Justice between a group of women and followers of the Jewish faith who have come to be known as the ‘Israel’s Taliban’. What is interesting is that this confrontation is not between secularists and fanatics since even the religious Israeli women can no longer tolerate the rigidity and attitudes of hatred that these Jewish zealots practice, and therefore have launched a legal campaign, which enjoys wide popular support, to put an end to it.
In the coming few days, five of these women will take the witness stand in court to appeal against the ad hoc ‘modesty patrol’ of the fanatical Jewish men who subject them and thousands of other religious women like them to attitudes of frustration and hatred, which they call against by enforcing penalties over some who have affronted them in what has become a ‘war of the buses’.
The issue that gave rise to this battle is related to the system imposed by these men over the public transportation buses especially reserved for religious Jews [mehadrin buses, approximately 30 Egged buses are designated as mehadrin, mostly on inter-city lines but are not marked to indicate this], whereby they force the women to embark using the rear door and to sit at the back of the bus, while the front door and seats are solely reserved for men.
But the matter cannot only be summed by this ‘law’; in fact, it involves a number of other more stringent laws. According to Mor Lidor, who will take the witness stand in the coming days, “My husband and I were returning on the last bus a little before midnight. As usual, we conformed to the rules they have imposed; I climbed on through the rear door and my husband used the front one. The women’s section in the back was all full and there remained three seats at the front of the bus. The bus driver refused to let two other women get on the bus, despite the vacant seats, claiming that the remaining seats were reserved for men and that women were not allowed to sit in them. He left them at the bus stop not taking heed of the late hour. I went up to him urging him to take the two women aboard and to arrange the seating in a way so that the men and women would not be able to interact, but he refused. I tried to convince my husband that we alight from the bus in protest but he refused.”
She added, “It was obvious that my interference did not please the religious men aboard the bus. I didn’t care. I looked out of the window at the star-filled sky and felt the hot tears scalding my cheeks with sadness for these two women. I started to imagine that some terrorist or Jewish criminal would attack them at this hour and I started to blame myself for not advising them to return to where they had come from and to postpone their journey to the next morning. Suddenly I heard a commotion coming from the front of the bus so I called my husband on his mobile phone to find out what was going on. I was shocked when he said that I was the reason for this verbal battle. Perplexed, I asked him: ‘Because of me?’ He said, ‘Yes, because of you. They say that you are not dressed in modest clothes.’” He added that some were arguing that she was dressed appropriately while others were attacking her appearance and considering her deviant.
Lidor said, “I looked down with surprise at my clothes, I am a religious woman who is incredibly committed. I always wear a wig (sheitel) and never reveal my hair as do all the religious women who follow our Orthodox trend. I wear a buttonless shirt that covers my neck and arms to my wrists. I wear a long skirt that reaches below my knees and socks that cover my legs. So I asked my husband, ‘What do they deem indecent?’ He said, ‘It doesn’t matter, I have agreed with them that you cover your legs with an additional garment.’ I told him that my legs were covered by thick black socks. He took off his shirt, remaining in his suit and coat and asked me to cover my legs with it. Only then did they let me be and cease their attacks.”
Segal, the chosen pseudonym by a Hebrew University of Jerusalem student who agreed to speak on condition of anonymity, spoke about what she had witnessed with her own eyes. She has to commute from Safd (north Israel) to Jerusalem to get to university. “Women suffer indignities in an unbearably rude manner. I have been traveling on this line for the past few months only because I am obliged to. This bus takes me to- and from- university in a shorter time and at a smaller cost. I have seen with my own eyes how they scream at the women who try to sit at the front of the bus. One of them said that she gets motion sickness when she sits in the back and they physically assaulted her. They act with blatant bullying and scream in a mad way that makes you feel that you have been subjected to the wrath of God,” she said.
“I have an Arab friend,” Segal continued, “It used to upset me to see how the (Israeli) police, both men and women would strictly and thoroughly search her when we would enter the compound together. Sometimes I would object to it and say that it was racist but ultimately I would think that the motive for such actions is for security, and we pay the price of conflict. But here on these buses, discrimination and insults stem from brutal barbaric motivation and a religious coercion that no religion would accept.”
Lidor and Segal’s stories are some of many stories that unfold on the so-called ‘mehadrin buses’, which operate approximately 30 main lines within Israel in the religious towns called ‘Haredim’ [also known as Hasid or Chassid, a sect in Judaism]. Lines include: Jerusalem-Safd, Jerusalem-Bene Beraq, Jerusalem-Bet Shemesh, Bet Shemesh-Bene Beraq and Bene Beraq-Ashdod, among others. Buses are new to Israel; they were brought in from the United States. They first started operating in Jewish districts and then moved on to travel between cities. Religious Jewish Americans who follow the Orthodox trend adopt a more extremist attitude than the Israelis – they have erected an iron curtain to partition between the men and women on one bus. They justify this by saying that the distances between the American towns are very long and entail several hours of traveling so that passengers are compelled to sleep and pray during travel, actions that inadvertently expose their bodies.
Nine years ago the Jewish Americans brought this gender segregation custom to Israel. At first it was enforced on privately owned buses that were operated by individuals, which then became private companies that were owned and run by these religious extremists themselves. In 2002, the main public bus company, Egged, which is an official governmental company, joined the trade and started operating its buses on the same lines, which caused a serious disturbance for private companies so that it seemed as though a civil war would erupt between the two sides.
One of the manifestations of this war was a leaflet that was issued by the owners of the private companies against Egged, the government and the police who had stopped them from physically assaulting the Egged buses. In these leaflets they used harsh words, “The criminals; of the police and the Egged mercenaries are beating and killing us without cease. Our men and women are being trampled and assaulted by the batons that these savage animals raise against us. Wake up… wake up for war is at the gates.”
But Egged emerged victorious from the battle, protected by the police and elevated by a number of clerics who are said to be beneficiaries, and seized control of most of the lines with the exception of some of the lines which are organized by other coach companies in Israel, Dan Company, which has a limited operation but which offers prices that cannot be resisted at half the prices of the official buses.
Egged spokesman, Ron Ratner spoke in defense of this phenomenon, known for his secularity he said, “We did not take the initiative to privatize the public transport market, the former government did. If you open up the market to competition you must handle the consequences. We played fair in the trade game. It’s no secret that we are not making a profit out of the Haredim buses, our prices are at a loss but we are building for the future. There are hundreds and thousands of Haredim in Israel, half of them travel on buses at least once a week. Can you imagine what that would mean in 20 years? Jewish extremists are increasing by 6.6 percent annually – it is the highest rate of proliferation in the world.”
Ratner explains that the word ‘Haredi’ or ‘Charedi’ means ‘fear’ in Hebrew and is derived from the fear of God, i.e. God-fearing. Haredi Judaism is a trend that is considered the most rigid and extremist of the Jewish Orthodox wing often referred to in the West as ‘Ultra-Orthodox Judaism’. They are recognized by their clothes; they wear a black suit, a hat and a black coat all year round regardless of weather or season. There exist 181 different groups within the Haredim which no one can distinguish except for the Haredim themselves. Differences could be that there is no black band visible on the hat, or a variation of the actual hat. Their numbers are estimated at 870,000, which constitutes 15 percent of the Jews in Israel, and a similar figure exists outside of Israel. While the poverty rate among them is high, equally there are many wealthy among them. Over the past few years, many of their largest investors have turned to the ‘high technology’ field and because the men were preoccupied with their prayers, the women were recruited in the factories so that today there are no less than 17,000 female religious Jewish workers in the industry sector. The employers state that these women in particular are distinguished by their efficiency and loyalty.
This Hasidic Jewish trend has been in existence since the beginning of Judaism [as the most theologically conservative form of Orthodox Judaism]; however they fluctuate from becoming powerful to weak pending the political climate and the wars. In the modern age, this trend grew in Eastern Europe and noticeably still clings onto its European affiliations in an extremist fashion to the extent that the spiritual fathers hailing from these countries are not known by their own names but rather by the names of the cities from which they hail such as ‘the Rabbi from Gora’ in Poland etc.
Since the beginning of the Zionist movement, the Haredim have opposed it, considering it to be a movement that adopts an atheist socialist ideology, accusing it of distorting the Torah. However, with the rise of the Jewish state, the leader of its first government succeeded in recruiting the Haredim into the government and their leader, Yitzhak-Meir Levin, became a member of the First Cabinet, signing the [Israeli] declaration of independence [also known as the Israeli Scroll of Independence]. Levin was elected to the First Knesset and was minister of social welfare in the first Israeli government for four years. The dissidents from the trend exerted pressure on Levin, urging him to quit the government and return to his religious group and ever since that time the Haredim have stood in opposition to the government.
In 1977 when the Likud party won the elections and came to power for the first time in Israel, Meacham Begin convinced them to re-engage in the governing of the country, and they were responsive to his request because he was close to the religious people and always linked between religion and Jewish nationalism. During the Likud era, the Shas party [Sephardim Religious Party] was formed by Eastern Jews who opted for direct involvement in politics and had a number of minister representatives in the government. The Haredi Jews became rich, accessing funds from the state budget and exerting a significant influence on governance so that even after many of their leaders were caught stealing and had breached trust, with some of them imprisoned on court orders, still, the leaders of these parties remained influential, their audiences predominantly asserting that their imprisonment was a vengeful act by the secularists.
The actions of these parties have evoked fierce anger amidst the Israeli public, deepening the chasm between the religious and the secularists. A manifestation of this anger was the forming of the secular Shinu party, which specializes in fighting against the religious parties. In 2003, Shinu won 15 seats (out of 120) in the Knesset. As a consequence to the hostile climate on the secular street, Ariel Sharon [former Israeli primer minister] replaced the religious parties’ seats with Shinu members, however the religious parties struck a deal in the last year of Sharon’s governance in 2005 and have since replaced the Shinu party members in the government – in return for their agreement to the disengagement plan [Israel’s unilateral disengagement plan to withdraw from the Gaza Strip].
The growing influence of the Haredim has reflected upon the religious parties and their audiences after state institutions agreed to deal with them as an autonomous community. Some claim that they have set up a state within the state – the Haredim buses are a case in point and but one example of this claim. They have set up their own schools, which have been recognized and allocated their own budgets despite the fact that they do not teach their students the required science subjects (such as chemistry and mathematics, among others) except in a very limited manner. Their neighborhoods in Jerusalem and Bene Beraq and other places are shut in the face of secularists, where inscriptions on the doors read, “We request that those who pass through this neighborhood respect the religious character of its people. We request of all women wear modest clothing. Modest clothing means a long-sleeved shirt and a long skirt. Do not walk through if you are wearing trousers or tight clothes.” The Hassids have 4,874 charity organizations to help the needy among them. Under the pretext of ‘kosher supervision’ they have set up a huge economic apparatus where thousands of supervisors work and receive a high pay. Most of the women do not buy their clothes from shops but rather from their own homes as the open-house phenomenon is steadily increasing. Another thriving business among the Haredim is sex education, where specialists in the field, both men and women, present the subject to couples planning to marry some two or three weeks before the wedding, for a price. The Israeli Income Tax Authority has lodged complaints of their tax evasion whereby they hide their incomes, in addition to Shabak’s [Israeli counter-intelligence and internal security service] failed attempts to infiltrate them by planting agents amongst them by reason of their insular nature.
In their detached world away from the secularists in Israel, they have started operating the aforementioned ‘mehadrin buses’ so as to ensure less interaction with the secularists. On these buses Israeli radio is prohibited, as are the ‘news of the disbelievers’ and the ‘satanic music’, and men do not mix with women. In some instances you find some among them who believe that these buses are a solution to the security issues. Not one of the men of religion hesitate in saying that (in 2003) “Allah has permitted a Palestinian terrorist to blow himself up on a bus in Jerusalem killing 23 Jews because the women on that bus were dressed immodestly and because the men and women were sitting together on the bus.”
However, their strong presence should not be deceiving; there are large disputes among them that run deep even taking on a hostile nature sometimes. Among the leadership, stings and verbal innuendos are exchanged, sometimes even resulting in attacks against one another, such as the events that took place last month wherein Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the spiritual leader of the Shas party, mocked another leader. Jerusalem’s Haredim who are considered the most affluent and sophisticated mock the Haredim of Bene Beraq and consider them backward and make up jokes about them. Under frustration’s umbrella explode horrific ethical scandals so that no day passes without the police discovering a new scandal; rape, exploitation of the weak and theft, among others.
Today, it seems that the battle with women might be the way to the beginning of the retreat of this great power which the Haredim have in Israel since the women who are leading this battle are at the heart of the religious community and have a strong impact upon it. Since they are religious and members of the Haredi, what they are petitioning for is considered taboo. They rely upon human rights laws in their petition, and ‘prohibiting discrimination on the basis of gender’ and ‘basic human rights’, which are expressions considered ‘hostile and secular’ in their view and those who resort to them are considered traitors. The battle will be fierce… and crucial for many aspects in Israel.