The High Court of Justice in Israel is weighing the question of who sits where on public buses.
The dispute centers on routes that run through traditional haredi neighborhoods, where men sit in the front and women in the back.
The court set a Dec. 27 deadline for the Transport Minister Yisrael Katz of the center-right Likud party to present a position on gendersegregated seating.
Last month, the US-based New Israel Fund launched a "Say no to the back of the bus," campaign, urging people to call, fax or email Katz and ask him to reject public buses with segregated seating. Last week a New Israel Fund spokesperson said close to 250 people had told the New Israel Fund that they had contacted Katz.
A special committee of the Ministry of Transport in October recommended a year-long trial in which men could continue to enter and sit in the front, while women could enter and sit in the back. Passengers, however, would not be required to abide by the segregated seating. The driver would have to step in to prevent coercion.
The committee was set up following a petition by the Israel Religious Action Center of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism (which is supported by the New Israel Fund), and several women including novelist Naomi Ragen, who said she was harassed for sitting in the front of a bus.
A decade ago, the haredi community asked Egged, a cooperative bus company subsidized by the government, to provide gender segregated lines in their neighborhoods, according to the New Israel Fund. More than 55 of these lines were operating by early 2009. Women who sit in the front of the bus have reported being verbally and sometimes even physically threatened.
The New Israel Fund gives money to organizations in Israel that focus on women's rights, religious pluralism and civil rights. They were looking for an issue "that would resonate with Americans who care about civil rights," said Monica Rosner Brettler, New England regional director.
"When we go to Israel as Americans, we tend to stigmatize the ultra-Orthodox as 'other' and don't realize the deference paid to their desires affects the average person on the street," she said.
Naomi Paiss, communications director for the New Israel Fund, said if haredim want gender-segregated buses, then they should fund their own.
She added, "I'm sure not going to tell some Israeli what to do about a zoning dispute in Rehovot, but when Orthodox rabbis…attempt to legislate gender segregation, it's something we have to be concerned about."
Rabbi Moshe Waldoks of Temple Beth Zion in Brookline forwarded a letter to congregants from Daniel Sokatch, CEO of the New Israel Fund, asking people to email the Israeli transportation minister to tell him "women do not belong in the back of the bus."
In an email to The Jewish Advocate,
Waldoks wrote that the segregation of buses in Israel will "sharpen and expand the already bitter divide between observant and nonobservant Jews in Israel."
"What is usually the case in these issues whether it be in Saudi Arabia or within the haredi precincts of Jerusalem and elsewhere in Israel, it is not a women's issue, but rather a men's issue. Are men so weak willed that sitting next to a woman will drive them to immorality?" he wrote.
But many Orthodox women say the buses that separate people according to gender are better for women, too. Rebbetzin Chanie Krinsky of the Chabad Jewish Center in Needham said she has traveled on buses in the Orthodox community in Monsey, N.Y., where women sit on the right and men on the left. When the men pray, a curtain is pulled down the aisle.
"If you're going with your husband, it's inconvenient, but when you're going on the bus and you don't know anyone, it's easier to sit near a woman," she said.
She said it is more difficult on a bus with mixed seating to observe halacha, which mandates that Orthodox individuals not have intentional physical contact with a member of the opposite sex who is not a family member.
Still, for Americans, it's hard not to think of Rosa Parks. Nancy Kaufman, executive director of the Jewish Community Relations Council, said "I think the symbolic nature of women in the back of the bus is not a good image either for Israel or for any of us."
Gender-segregated buses, she said, "would be a setback for the rights of women in Israel, be they Orthodox or Reform or secular."