Saturday, September 19, 2020

It read like a scene from a bad novel. For Americans of a certain generation, it recalled the heroic struggle initiated by Rosa Parks when she refused to move to the back of the bus in Montgomery, Alabama. But it was ugly—very ugly.

Last week, some hooligans, parading as ultra-pious Jews, turned violent in Beit Shemesh, when a woman refused to move to the back of the bus (though she claimed later in the week that she and her children were willing to move but the bus driver had called the police). The haredim damaged several Israeli buses and they roughed up the woman. How they could rough her up without touching her beats me, but I leave that to them and their religious consciousness. I also leave it to their so very pious teachers to examine how their students could so distort religious values.

For the first time in Jewish history some devout Jews are demanding gender segregated buses in a public transportation system. Recall that they are not the first religious Jews to ride buses. It is done every day but Shabbes in Melbourne and Williamsburg, in London and Paris and even on most buses in Jerusalem, B’nai Brak and Safed, as it was done on the trolleys of Warsaw and Krakow and even Munkacs, Uhel and Satu-Mare.


I shall leave it to others, more learned than I to judge the merits of their religious rigor, but I suspect that bus riders in these important cities of Jewish life and the heralded cities of the Jewish past were not wanton, public violators of Jewish tradition and law; far from it.

Israel’s Supreme Court has ruled that “voluntary” gender separation in public transportation is permissible in Israel, stressing the word voluntary. One might say Constitutional, but Israel has no Constitution, merely Basic Laws. But with all due respect for that sagacious and distinguished body, I think that they made a mistake in not using their imagination as to how to balance the request for religious accommodation and the requirements of a democracy, which should not discriminate against its citizens.

In order to demonstrate that the goal of this request was only separation by gender and not Heaven forbid discrimination against women—mothers, wives, sisters and daughters—I offer a modest proposal.

On those bus lines where gender separation is voluntary, men ride in the front of the bus on Monday, Wednesday and Friday and women ride in the front of the bus on Sunday, Tuesday and Thursday. Of course none of these buses will be driven on Shabbes.

Thus, each gender is treated equally. Genders are separated, but there is no gender discrimination. One would be hard pressed to find a halakhic source that would require men to sit in the front of bus rather than in the back and it might be more in keeping for the respect that is accorded a Jewish woman for women carrying their groceries and holding many children be offered equal accommodations at least on a rotating basis. After all, these men are carrying nothing heavier than a volume of Talmud after a long day of learning Torah.

One wonders if such a policy was instituted how long gender separation might prevail if men were required to go to the back of the bus 50 percent of the time.

Many years ago an Atlanta department dtore owner approached the wise Jewish humorist Harry Golden and asked him how he could integrate the bathrooms of his prestigious store.

Golden proposed a novel idea. Renovate what were then called “Colored Bathrooms,” make them attractive and ultra modern and then put an “Out of Order” sign on the “White Only” bathroom and seem how long it takes for integration to happen organically.

In a democratic society, religious accommodation can accept gender separation but not gender segregation.

by Michael Berenbaum