Shades of Rosa Parks
More than half a century after Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat on a public bus in Montgomery, Ala. — a defiant gesture that sparked the American Civil Rights Movement — Israel, sadly enough, is still dealing with her own civil rights issues.
But on Monday, Jews were treated to another sign that Israelis from both ends of the political spectrum are fed up with this segregation. On that day, at the same event — a conference on human trafficking — Israeli President Shimon Peres and Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu came out publicly against efforts by some haredi Orthodox Jews to segregate women in public, especially on public buses.
“Women’s place in the public sphere must be guaranteed and equal,” said Netanyahu. “Equality between men and women is total. So it has been and so it will continue to be. This trend contradicts Jewish tradition.”
Said Peres, “If a man doesn’t want to get on a bus, he shouldn’t get on; no one is forcing him. But no man has the right to force a woman to sit wherever he decides. In the public sphere there shall be no discrimination.”
They were referring to segregated buses in Jerusalem and other parts of the country, which the haredi — ultra-religious Jews — are demanding, but many other Jews in Israel, and the Diaspora, are opposing.
It’s a long overdue gesture by Israel’s two highest-ranking leaders, and it’s hardly a coincidence that they made the same declaration on the same day at the same event.
By no means, though, is this the first blow struck against religious segregation in the Jewish state. Israel’s High Court of Justice ruled Jan. 6 that gender segregation on public buses was legal only with passenger consent, and ordered that signs designating buses as segregated be removed and replaced by signs informing passengers that they had the right to sit wherever they wanted.
The ruling was in response to a petition against bus lines that serve mostly haredi communities, but are open for all public commuters. According to Israel’s daily Haaretz, several women complained of being “verbally and physically assaulted” for failing to sit in the back of the bus.
“A public transportation operator, like any other person, does not have the right to order, request or tell women where they may sit simply because they are women,” Supreme Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein wrote in his ruling. “They must sit wherever they like.”
Interestingly enough, Rubinstein added these words: “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?”
We hope not, but as Rabbi Stanley Davids, the past president of the Association of Reform Zionists in America (ARZA), and his wife, Resa, made abundantly clear on their recent visit to Pittsburgh, the haredi still exercise far too much control over public and religious life in Israel, and American Jews must play a greater role in speaking out against it.
The haredi have the right to live and worship as they please; they do not have the right to impose their lifestyle on the rest of Israel, and they shouldn’t expect American Jews to remain silent while they do it.