Religious Jews still try to segregate Israel buses

By Amy Teibel

Associated Press

Published: Sunday, Dec. 18 2011 8:55 a.m. MST

Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, centre, convenes the weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem, Sunday, Dec. 18, 2011.

Abir Sultan, Pool, Associated Press

Enlarge photo»

JERUSALEM — Israel's political leaders and chief rabbis on Sunday condemned persistent efforts by ultra-Orthodox Jewish men to shunt Israeli women to the back of public buses, a year after the country's Supreme Court outlawed the practice.

The outcry came in reaction to an Israeli woman's experience of being asked to move to the back of a bus, which was posted on Facebook and became a cause celebre in the Israeli media on Sunday. The case even drew public comment from Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, who deplored gender segregation.

Ultra-Orthodox Jews, who make up about 10 percent of Israel's population of 7.6 million, have become increasingly aggressive in their efforts to impose their norms in public spaces. The ultra-Orthodox have segregated bus lines and some walkways in their neighborhoods.

In Jerusalem, billboards depicting women have become a rarity because ultra-Orthodox vandals rip them down. The issue also has seeped into the military, where religious soldiers walked out of a military event several months ago because women were singing — which extremely devout Jews believe is contrary to Jewish law.

In the past, ultra-Orthodox Jews have confined their strict practices to their own neighborhoods, alongside occasional attempts to pass restrictive legislation banning sale of pork or opening shops on the Jewish Sabbath.

Recently the extremist Jews have been trying to impose their norms outside their own enclaves, but the effects are scattered. Most of Israel's secular majority is not directly affected.

The Supreme Court was forced to wade into the controversy last year, when it ruled on the segregated buses and sidewalks. Although activists say harassment on buses has diminished since the court ruling late last year, some fiercely devout are persisting with their efforts to block the mixing of the sexes in public.

Tanya Rosenblit, a 28-year-old woman from the southern town of Ashdod, discovered this last Friday, when she boarded a bus to an Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem. Shortly after she sat down behind the driver, a man wearing the black garb and flowing sidelocks of the ultra-Orthodox boarded the bus and asked her to move. She refused, and the man then blocked the bus from driving, she told The Associated Press.

She held her ground — even after a male police officer dispatched to the scene asked her if she was "willing to respect them and move to the back," she said.

"I said, 'I respected them enough with my modest dress and I don't plan to humiliate myself to respect them or anyone else,'" she said.

The man opted to stay in Ashdod rather than travel on the bus with her.

Netanyahu spoke out against the attempted segregation at the start of the weekly Cabinet meeting.

"Today I heard about moving a woman on a bus. I adamantly oppose this," Netanyahu said. "Fringe groups must not be allowed to tear apart our common denominator. We must preserve public space as open and safe for all citizens of Israel."

Israel's two chief rabbis, themselves ultra-Orthodox Jews, concurred that the religious have no right to impose their opinions on others and proposed private bus lines as a substitute.

"It's not an ultra-Orthodox state," said Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, who represents Israel's Ashkenazi, or European-descended Jews.

"A person can subject himself to a stricter code, but not others," the Ynet news website quoted Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar, who represents Sephardic Jews of Mideast descent, as saying.

Parliamentary opposition leader Tzipi Livni said the struggle was not only for the right of women to sit at the front of buses, "but the very face of Israel."

"There is a group in Israel that is trying to impose its lifestyle on the Zionist majority," she said.

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