The big drama so far in Israel this week has involved Tanya Rosenblit, a 28-year-old writer and translator. Boarding a bus from the coastal town of Ashdod to Jerusalem, she stood her ground for about half an hour when ultra-Orthodox (haredi) Jewish men tried to pressure her to take a seat at the back. Rosenblit became an instant heroine, appearing on TV with the transportation minister and publishing an op-ed about her experience in one of Israel’s largest dailies.
In January 2011 Israel’s Supreme Court declared forced gender segregation on buses illegal. Politicians from both right and left condemned the attempt to coerce Rosenblit. Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu said “a fringe group must not be allowed to dismantle what we share in common.” Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, himself ultra-Orthodox, said, “We don’t have the authority to force our ideas on others. This country does not belong to the haredi community.”
Gender segregation on Israeli buses has, of course, gotten attention from lofty places lately. Speaking to the Saban Center earlier this month, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said it and other Israeli phenomena reminded her of Iran. And last week in an already-notorious op-ed Thomas Friedman included segregated bus lines for the ultra-Orthodox community (to repeat, now outlawed) in a volley of jibes against Israel.
As the above story reveals—yes, there is a problem; and yes, it’s being addressed. It should also be seen in the right dimensions: only a small proportion of the public buses serve neighborhoods (mostly in Jerusalem) of the ultra-Orthodox, who account for 9 percent of the Jewish population. But, for some, catching a rumor somewhere (sex-segregated buses in Israel!) is enough to heap some more vilification on the much-criticized Jewish state.
And how did the problem come about? Does it really signal a deterioration of democracy, as Clinton complained? Or does it in fact reflect something quite different?
The ultra-Orthodox have always been a problematic community in Israel, ranging from hostile to ambivalent toward the secular state. But back in 1948 when Israel was established, they were a tiny community. Young haredi men were exempted from military service and even given state support for yeshiva studies. The secular-Jewish majority tended to see the haredim as an eccentric remnant of the Diaspora that, in any case, would soon wither on the vine.
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