The Israeli Supreme Court announced today that it would not tolerate institutionalized gender-segregation, a move welcomed by liberal groups in Israel. However, the Court’s ruling also maintained the status quo of “voluntary segregation” on the Israeli bus system. While the announcement is, overall, a welcome one, it would have been nicer to see a firmer stance from a country that allows women to serve in combat units in the army, elects women as Prime Ministers and has the highest rate of female entrepreneurship in the world.
The Supreme Court ruling today upholds the practice of gender segregation on certain bus lines in Israel to allow for gender modesty for the ultra-Orthodox community. It is in line with a recommendation of the Transportation Ministry which recommended that the ultra-Orthodox (Mehadrin) bus lines be allowed to operate as such as long as women are not forced to sit in the back of the bus and the segregation is voluntary. The ruling calls for Transportation Ministry inspections of the bus lines to ensure that coercive seating does not occur and also calls for the major bus operator in Israel, Egged, to establish complaint centers for female passengers.
According to JTA, women’s groups and the Israeli Religious Action Center are welcoming the ruling as an endorsement by the Supreme Court of the illegality of mandated segregation. In a statement from Yitzhar Hess, CEO of the Israeli Masorti (Conservative) Movement, Hess admonishes the practice of instituting laws that exclude women from the public sphere in the name of religious lifestyle:
“The mehadrin (ultra-Orthodox) lines were conceived in sin. It is important to remember that the ‘separate but equal’ equation is usually refuted, since the side that pays the price is the weak one. Not only women are excluded in the mehadrin lines. It is human dignity that diminishes.”
Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein had similar sentiments and wrote:
“As I now read over these lines emphasizing this, I am astounded that there was even a need to write them in the year 2010. Have the days of Rosa Parks, the African-American woman who collapsed the racist segregation on an Alabama bus in 1955, returned?”
The idea of “voluntary segregation” is inherently concerning. The Mehadrin lines primarily operate in religious neighborhoods and are used overwhelmingly by Orthodox patrons; however there are non-Orthodox people who use these buses regularly. It is not possible that every non-Orthodox woman (or some Orthodox women for that matter) is willing to sit in the back of the bus, voluntarily segregating themselves. Also, given the historic precedent of fights between certain Orthodox male patrons and others on the Mehadrin buses it is likely that some Orthodox men will not respond well to women who choose to not self-segregate. While it is nice that this Supreme Court ruling does not legalize segregation it would have been preferable to see a more hard-line stance against such practices.