Friday, April 13, 2007

Riding The Green Line

Adi and a fellow female soldier, Sharona, (not their real names) were both denied entry onto a green Egged intercity bus from Netivot to Jerusalem by the driver. Both the women were wearing Israeli army uniforms, but pants rather than skirts. “You can’t keep us off the bus,” Adi told him, pushing herself on the bus. “I’m a soldier in the IDF and I’ll sit where I like,” corporal Adi told the Egged bus driver.

The bus was loaded with ultra-orthodox Jews, long-bearded, side-curled men in black suits and black hats, women in drab dresses and head covered in wigs or scarves or funny hats, sometimes all three. Once aboard the bus, Adi was told to sit in the back of the bus. Adi and Sharona sat in a pair of vacant seats in the front of the bus. The male passengers, who were joined by the women, berated her. “Sit in the back,” she was told. “I won’t,” she answered. And didn’t. The driver, a non-religious immigrant from the former Soviet Union, ignored the argument.

“You’re the Rosa Parks of Israel,” a visiting American professor from Yeshiva University said, hearing the soldiers tell their story.

Adi and Sharon tell an even more horrifying element to the story. The two women work as “soldier-teachers” in the schools of Netivot, a largely poverty-ridden development town in the south of Israel, between Ashkelon and Sderot, near the Gaza Strip.

The schools are by and large ultra-orthodox, as is much of Netivot. One of the leading Sephardi holy men, the “Baba Sali” lives in Netivot, in what is described as a mansion. Most of the rest of the town is dirt poor.

According to Adi, the textbooks used in the schools have pages ripped out or paragraphs crossed out, that deal with the Zionist history of Israel. The children are taught, according to both Adi and Sharon, that the non-religious is to be ignored and disdained. They are taught, from first grade, to ignore Israeli holidays, and not to obey the siren when it wails marking Israeli’s Independence Day; or any other holiday when one is to stand at attention until the siren ceases.

Adi and Sharon were incensed to see this kind of education, encouraged by the teachers, taking place in Israel. Not only because the schools are all subsidized by the State, but because these teachers are Jewish women, citizens of Israel. It is the state that pays the teachers salaries, and pays for the schools. The only other place one can see such overt anti-Israeli sentiment is in the Arab school system, where the outlines of the map of Israel don’t exist, or if they do the word “Israel” is replaced with “Palestine.”

For the ultra-orthodox, until the Messiah comes, and Torah law rules the country, there is no Jewish State. In that regard the ultra-orthodox Jews have a lot in common with the Taliban, and other fundamentalist societies.

Egged currently runs about 18 bus lines specifically for the ultra-orthodox community. As the price of apartments increases in the major cities, ultra-orthodox families have found better quality of life, and cheaper housing, in the development towns like Netivot, Arad and Beit Shemesh. According to a recent survey published in a Jerusalem Post article, less than 20 per cent of the ultra-orthodox community owns cars. Public transportation is their main mode of getting around the country.

The problem is that Egged is the largest bus company in Israel responsible for nearly all of the bus traffic between cities. Buses are the main form of inter-city transportation, besides private cars. The problem is complicated by the fact that Egged receives government subsidies to run certain lines; as well as subsidies from the government to allow soldiers in uniform to ride for free.

By denying soldiers access to a public bus Egged is probably breaking any number of laws. Egged doesn’t seem to care. They have reportedly found a lucrative market in the ultra-orthodox community, and are bending to the ultra-orthodox demands for separate seating on the buses. Women are relegated to the back of the bus, even asked to enter from the back. The ultra-orthodox women don’t seem to care.

Intracity buses are no different. Stories have begun to appear in Israeli papers dealing with violence on ultra-orthodox bus lines. One woman tells of being beaten riding a Jerusalem bus headed for the Western Wall in the Old City because she wouldn’t move to the back of the bus. The woman, an American immigrant, brought criminal charges against the men who beat her. The case is still pending.

The ultra-orthodox intolerance for democratic principles also extends to advertising. In the ultra-orthodox neighborhoods women are never seen in an advertisement, not in a billboard, not in a magazine, not on posters plastered on the sides of walls, a low-cost and ubiquitous form of advertising in the ultra-orthodox neighborhoods.

The ultra-orthodox even have specialty films that have no female characters in them. Bus stops in Israel went through a phase where advertisers slid posters between the plastic partitions of specially constructed bus stops.

Advertising companies who made the mistake of putting any ads with women in posters found the plastic walls defaced, sometimes doused with kerosene and set alight. Ads placed on signs attached to streetlight pillars were also destroyed if they even hinted at a woman’s visage. Kotex ads, for women’s sanitary pads, only use the name with a small red heart.

One educational institution in Israel ran an advertising campaign using posters on Egged buses. When Egged was shown a poster with men and women learning in the same classroom the non-religious Egged executive in charge of approving the ads turned the institution down. “No women’s ads on Egged buses in Jerusalem,” the institution was told.

Imagine the same restrictions on buses or subways in New York City. The day following the advertiser’s denial to put a woman on a poster, lawsuits would be filed in such numbers that the courts would have to shut down just to process the paper work. In Israel the reverse discrimination seems to be a way of life.

Violence is not unusual in the ultra-orthodox community. While not on the same level of violence as urban street gangs from the USA to S. America, where guns and knives are used daily, the ultra-orthodox can field a solid mass of hundreds, even thousands, of black-suited men and boys and mount an attack which requires police on horse-back, tear gas, and water canon to control the riot.

The Vishnitz Hassidic sect, based in Benei Brak is reportedly in the midst of a power struggle between two sons of the 92-year old Rebbe. The groups have been holding fierce street battles. According to a report in the Jerusalem Post, one group hurled objects at the other group along with epithets of “heathen” and “gentile,” and “non-believer.”

The Talmud offers advice how to force a man who is reluctant to give his wife a “Get”, a Jewish divorce decree: beat him up until he agrees. The issue of Agunot, women who have been denied a divorce by their husbands, has left many women at lose ends in Israel and around the world. Usually, according to experts, the reasons for the man’s reluctance are monetary; he is looking for a settlement. Sometimes it’s just plain meanness.

The courts in Israel have an ultra-orthodox element, the classic “Beit Din”, for those of the religious community who want their case decided by Rabbis. These courts usually throw out a plea to force a man to give his wife a “Get.” Sometimes the reason is that the plaintiff has been to a civil court to seek damages, alimony, or child-support payments. Such a move obviates the religious courts from hearing the case. It’s as if they’re insulted the plaintiff went to a civil court, and are now punishing the plaintiff.

This issue is important if someone wants to bring charges against the ultra-orthodox community for denying soldiers the right to ride a public Egged bus. Since there are no “modern orthodox”, let along Conservative or Reform Jews, on the rabbinic courts, a fair hearing there would be nearly impossible.

Freedom of religion is something to be revered, especially in Israel. But freedom of travel should also be revered. Egged, a national carrier, receiving monies from the public coffers, should not be allowed to restrict travel of non-religious citizens. Public transportation earmarked by Egged as lines specific to the ultra-orthodox should be made private, rented out and paid for by the community.

The resentment among the non-religious against the ultra-orthodox is exacerbated by this kind of indulgence by Egged. The non-ultra-orthodox community is already peeved at the religious community for not serving in the Israeli army, for disdaining the Jewish State’s existence, and for eschewing the payment of taxes. In fact, much of the ultra-orthodox community is supported by the state through welfare payments, housing subsidies, and educational subsidies.

One can only marvel at the absolute perfection in applying to word “Chutzpa” to this kind of behavior.

But the bottom line is that a minority should not be allowed to dictate to a majority, especially when the majority is paying the bills.