Its a public bus and women can sit anywhere &mdash at their own risk

I can’t remember the last time I took a bus in Jerusalem.

But Monday morning, in the throes of a new exercise regimen, I found myself walking down Rehov Strauss and, as luck would have it, the No. 40 bus stopped right in front of me. It’s the bus with the shortest route to my home in Ramot, a neighborhood divided between secular, modern Orthodox and haredi inhabitants.

The bus was empty when I got on. Completely empty. So I paid my fare, got my receipt and chose a single seat near the front.

I was happily immersed in an article about Yaddo in Vanity Fair when I was interrupted by an angry haredi man who announced that I needed to move to the back of the bus. I looked up at him, astonished, feeling a flash of what blacks must have felt in Alabama in 1950.

Now, in the past, I have been willing to accommodate fervently religious men on public buses. If the buses are crowded, I don’t mind moving next to another woman to free up two seats for such men. But here I was, sitting alone in a one-seater.

Very calmly, and politely I think, I told him that this was a public bus and I would sit where I liked. He didn’t have to sit next to me, and he didn’t have to look at me.

He shuffled off quietly, taking one of the many, many available seats. And that, I thought, was that.

It wasn’t. A few stops later, another haredi man — this time with the build of a Sumo wrestler — aggressively planted his two feet squarely in front of my seat and, in a loud and abusive tone and in no uncertain terms, demanded that I move to the back of the bus.

At this point, annoyance gave way to Martin Luther King-like outrage. I looked up into his puffy white face set in nasty and determined lines and said, clearly, “When you show me where in the Shulchan Aruch [Code of Jewish Law] it says I can’t sit in this seat, I will move.

“Until then,” I suggested helpfully, “get out of my face.”

He didn’t take my suggestion but continued to rant and rave. I am absolutely confident that only the prohibitions against touching a woman (that actually are in the Shulchan Aruch) saved me from being bodily hauled from my seat.

Eventually, realizing he’d used up whatever male powers he thought he possessed to whip me into obedience, he moved away, muttering loudly, finally squeezing his ample frame into one of the many available seats in the self-proclaimed “men’s section.”

The entire ride, I continued to be the target of intermittent abuse until he finally got off, not forgetting to hurl a final nasty farewell. “You’re a great tzaddik,” I retorted, not looking up.

All this time, the bus driver said nothing, even though it was clear to him what was happening. As my stop neared, I glanced at the women dutifully crowded into the back. Many of them were engrossed in reciting psalms. I suppose that’s one solution.

However, once I reached home I decided to call Egged’s public complaint department in Jerusalem. Does Egged, which enjoys government subsidies and owns the exclusive franchise to run public transportation in the nation’s capital, have a policy that women must sit on the back of the bus? And if they do, why not put a sign on buses informing innocent female passengers of that fact, allowing them to decide whether or not to board? And if there is no such policy, how is it that the driver gave me no protection whatsoever from nonstop harassment during the entire ride?

This is what I was told: “The No. 40 bus is a public bus and passengers may sit anywhere they choose. However, on those lines (and No. 40 is one) on which 95 percent of the passengers are haredim, we allow the passengers to decide how they want to divide the seating. Egged doesn’t interfere.”

That is certainly true. There was no interference. Even when a passenger was harassed, abused, insulted and intimidated for having the temerity to be a woman who doesn’t want to sit in the back of the bus.

I have a suggestion for Egged. Either put a sign in the front of bus No. 40 telling women they should go to the back of the bus, or put up one informing all passengers that they are now boarding public transportation, and that if their piety doesn’t allow them to see a woman sitting in the front of a bus, they should take a taxi.

And if not, perhaps the Israeli government should allow the creation of another bus company to fulfill the needs of public transportation in Jerusalem, one that will protect its female passengers from the Jewish Taliban?

Naomi Ragen is the author of six novels. Her latest, “The Covenant,” is due out in November. This column previously appeared in The Jerusalem Post.


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