Laughter broke the tense atmosphere of the Israel Supreme Court session on Thursday Feb.4 (20bShvat) when both sides, those in favor of gender-separated seating on Mehadrin buses and those against, reacted with smiles to the quip by Justice Elyakim Rubinstein. The session had started with a lengthy discussion about whether to put signs on the buses saying that anyone can sit where he or she wants, but as a courtesy on these lines men are requested to sit in the front and seats in the back are reserved for women. In Hebrew, one term for signs is “tamrurim.” After twenty minutes of arguments by the two sides about the efficacy of such “tamrurim” Justice Rubinstein remarked in Hebrew with a smile,
“I guess what we have here is “bechi tamrurim” — crying over signs,
a pun on the phrase from Jeremiah 31:14 where bechi tamrurim refers to matriarch Rachel’s crying bitterly (related to maror meaning bitter)..
I sat through the court session and, with Adar coming up, decided to record the humor and the jokes, which I will emphasize below. What occasioned the argument about signs was the surprising position taken by the non-religious Minister of Transport, Yaakov Katz (Likud) defending the practice of gender-separation on buses, as long as there is no coercion and provided that there are signs. The lawyer for the Minister explained that by putting up signs so that passengers will know that they are boarding a Mehadrin bus, then most of the unpleasant incidents will be eliminated. By this, Minister Katz unexpectedly overruled parts of the report of the “Committee for Examining Public Transport Arrangements for the Haredi Sector” appointed by his own Ministry. The report claimed that there was no legal basis for allowing Mehadrin buses. In contrast, he emphasized that there is also no legal basis to forbid separate-seating, as long as it is voluntary.
To recap the history of the case, ten years ago Egged introduced the first gender-separated buses between haredi cities or neighborhoods. There have never been signs or official enforcement. It was understood that certain lines were “Mehadrin.” Note that hundreds of thousands of passenger miles/kilometers are traversed each year by Mehadrin buses where equanimity, quiet, courtesy, and easy-going flexibility is the rule. But the undefined situation led some haredim to think they should or could enforce the seating arrangements. This officiousness led to a relatively miniscule number of unpleasant incidents.
The courtroom drama began in 2007 when several women who had been treated rudely when they sat in the men’s section (intentionally or by accident) filed a petition to the High Court of Justice (Bagatz, Beis din gavoha l’tzedek), in Israel’s Supreme Court. The offended women were led by a prominent novelist Naomi Ragen who defines herself as Orthodox, and is shomeret Shabbat. She teamed up with the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Committee (IRAC) to request that the Court ban the buses until the matter could be studied and regulated.
The opening salvo by the Court was in 2008 when Justice Rubinstein, who wears a knitted kippah and attended national religious schools, stated as a premise, “I do not see anything pasul or anything to disqualify Mehadrin buses for those who want them.” The argument of the petitioners against the buses was that they should be disqualified because they restrict freedom of movement and discriminate against women.
The Court required the Transportation Ministry to prepare a report on the problem. The aforementioned report of the 11-member Committee was published this fall, and last week Minister Katz accepted only some of their recommendations. I attended the packed Court session last week at which Justice Rubinstein was the presiding judge, accompanied by Justices Yoram Danziger and Salim Jubrin. Justice Jubrin provided another light moment in response to a statement by the Haredi attorney Mordechai Green who was there as amicus curiae (a brief filed with the court by someone who is not a party to the case). Mr. Green argued in favor of the Mehadrin buses, and represented B’Tzedek, the American-Israel Center for Promoting Justice. He claimed that many passengers, including secular Jews and Arabs, preferred the separate-seating. Justice Jubrin, who hails from the Arab sector, responded that as far as he knows Arabs have no problem with the mixed seating buses. At that point Justice Rubinstein turned to his fellow justice and said,
“Well, maybe that is minhag Jubrin!”
While Attorney Green claimed that even Arabs had no problem with Mehadrin buses, Einat Horowitz, the lawyer for the Reform IRAC claimed that even many Haredi women were phoning her Reform organization and complaining about the Mehadrin buses. She gave no numbers so it was not clear what “many” meant. To this Justice Rubinstein had another humorous retort.
“If Haredim are calling the Reform Center, then this is progress!” :-)
Turning then to Attorney Green, Justice Rubinstein began a new set of questions. “Na’ar hayiti v’gam zakanti” he said, invoking the phrase from Birkat Hamzon, where in the grace after meals it says, “I was young once, and now I am old.” The Justice described his younger days decades ago when he rode Egged bus #400 frequently from Jerusalem to Bene Brak, and points in between. “Religious, secular, Haredi, everyone got along. A Haredi man would sit next to man on the bus, there was no separate section. So why did the Haredim start this innovation ten years ago?” he questioned. Among the responses was the observation that when the Justice was a youth, the standards of dress in the general population were much more modest, and since then there has been severe deterioration in that realm. Attorney Green, defending the Mehadrin buses, also emphasized that the arrangements inside the buses were almost always flexible and easygoing. Often married couples sat together in the center. If there were hardships for elderly or disabled women, they were usually accommodated in the men’s section.
The petitioners against the buses claimed that there must be equal non-Mehadrin buses for every separate-seating one. The lawyer for Egged explained that this would be uneconomical since there is not enough demand. There are currently 56 lines running in and between 28 cities (compared to over 3000 mixed-seating lines running among hundreds of cities and towns, on the order of magnitude of a million riders a day).
To the suggestion that Haredim run their own private lines instead of the public Egged and Dan companies (which are partially subsidized by the State) the Ministry of Transport lawyer responded, “That was the situation a decade ago when private Haredi companies ran their own buses, minibuses, and cooperative taxis which were often unlicensed and problematic. We worked hard to eliminate this unregulated situation and we were glad to have the Egged and Dan companies run the separate-seating lines instead.”
The last presenter was attorney Riki Shapira who spoke as amicus curiae against the Mehadrin buses. She represented Kolech (religious feminists), Neemaney Torah vAvoda (a national religious organization), and Merkaz Yaakov Herzog (modern Orthodox) who sided with the Reform, against separate seating. In her presentation she repeated many of the arguments already heard and the session was adjourned. A decision will be handed down at some future date. “What we have here are two parties pulling on opposite ends of a garment” concluded Justice Rubenstein, clearly referring to the chapter on shnayim ochazim b’tallit in tractate Baba Metzia where two disputants fight over ownership.
There was quite a bit of discussion after the court session in the hallway. Reporters asked: Why weren’t signs posted from day one ten years ago? Several people gave the same answer: Egged was afraid it would look like Egged was putting its imprimatur on the arrangement and worried that the courts or government would not allow it. But now it seems Egged is being rebuked for not having put up signs. This is a case where you are condemned if you do, and condemned if you don’t.
Another question arose: Did the Committee approve or disapprove? They said it was not legal, but they also said it is not illegal. (Remember Purim is coming up). Similar to the question: Is everything permitted in halacha that is not expressly forbidden?
One of the handful of Haredim who attended the session, which was open to the public at large, commented afterwards,
“It behooves us to be exceptionally sensitive and polite in general, and especially when riding the Mehadrin buses, because of the delicate situation. If some passengers had not been brusquely treated, the whole situation might not have reached the Court.”
P.S. FYI, here are the milestones in the case.
About the year 2000, Mehadrin Lines were initiated by Egged.
In 2004, Naomi Ragen was offended by a fellow rider.
In 2007 Naomi Ragen and Reform IRAC file petition in Supreme Court against Transport Ministry, Egged, Dan buses.
In 2007 some Orthodox observers also expressed reservations about the Mehadrin buses, e.g. Gil Student and Jonathan Rosenblum.
In 2007 yours truly explained the rationale behind the buses ; writers like Yaakov Menken defended the buses
In 2007 I was asked by the JTA to explain them in a debate with an American (who never once rode the buses). See the Wyoming Valley Reporter (which is not in Wyoming)
Oct. 2009 the Committee of transportation experts issues report
Oct. 2009 Naomi Ragen goes on video to praise the committee.
Feb.1, 2010 Transport Minister Katz publishes reaction to Committee Report a day before Supreme Court holds a public hearing.
Feb. 12,2010 – the case is still in limbo. Jerusalem Post runs front page “news” article, in a tendentious report giving voice mainly to the Reform IRAC vew, trying to scare the public.