Hundreds cry 'Jerusalem is not Tehran' in protest over gender segregation on buses in Haredi areas

Haaretz, Israel/March 14, 2010

Several hundred people picketed the Prime Minister's Residence in Jerusalem last night to protest Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz's decision to allow gender segregation on buses in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.

One of the protesters read out a letter from Kadima chief and opposition leader Tzipi Livni.

"Those who push women to the back of the bus seek to push women away from taking an equal and central place. Those who agree to see women pushed to the back allows them to be pushed back from any other position of influence in Israeli society," Livni wrote.

"Anyone being silent when women are pushed to a marginal and invisible place lends a hand to a process that will see women pushed from leadership in academia, business, the army and politics."

Katz's decision came in response to conclusions by a committee he appointed to examine the issue. The committee recommended that segregation be banned, but Katz wrote to the Supreme Court that although the segregation was illegal, he proposed that it be retained as long as women were "voluntarily conforming."

Opponents of the policy, however, say segregation is inherently coercive, and that ultra-Orthodox women were not really free to resist.

Research by Hiddush, an organization for religious freedom and equality, said Israel has 63 segregated bus lines making 2,500 trips a day. The research shows that the segregation is almost entirely confined to the Hasidic community, with Beitar Ilit operating 18 segregated routes, compared with just two in Upper Modi'in.

Speaking at the protest, MK Nitzan Horowitz (Meretz) said that if the buses in question continue to operate, secular activists will begin boarding them and violate the segregation.

"The struggle against those humiliating bus routes is part of a much bigger struggle - for civil marriages and equality concerning the draft," he said. "We're not a minority, we're an overwhelming majority, and we will insist on our rights." Some of the signs carried at the protest asserted that "Jerusalem isn't Tehran."

Another speaker at the protest, former MK Ophir Pines-Paz, said that when historians inquire how Israel became a theocratic state, one of the most infamous decisions will be the decision not to ban segregated bus routes. Pines-Paz called on Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to intervene.

As the protest wound down, several dozen ultra-Orthodox protesters arrived for a counter-demonstration, holding signs that said "segregation equals blessing."

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