restricted access The Self-defeating Nature of "Modesty"— Based Gender Segregation
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The Self-defeating Nature of "Modesty"— Based Gender Segregation


This part of our roundtable argues that gender segregation in Israel is a form of sexual harassment under Israeli Law, as well as a self-defeating policy from the perspective of Orthodox religious principles. Analyzing the case of gender segregation in public transportation in certain cities in Israel, I shall demonstrate that gender-segregated seating arrangements in Israeli buses constitute "an intimidating or humiliating reference directed towards"1 women's sex or their sexuality. Therefore, such segregation constitutes prohibited sexual harassment pursuant to Section 3(5)(a) of the Prevention of Sexual Harassment Law, 5758-1998. I also argue that the current wave of Jewish religious fundamentalism, with its relatively new demands concerning women's modesty, is self-defeating. While its motivation is to "clean" the public sphere from any manifestation, real or perceived, of female sexuality, by being so preoccupied with women's "modesty" it in fact puts their sexuality at the center of attention.

A Brief Overview of Gender Segregation in Israel

Gender-based segregation in Israel enjoys a growing presence. In addition to segregated public transportation, there are segregated post office and kupat holim (HMO) branches, segregated funerals (despite court rulings that forbid it), and even segregated ice-cream parlors and sidewalks.2 In the same vein, women's images have been erased from ads published on billboards and on buses.3 Most instances occur in predominantly ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods and towns. However, many of the segregated establishments serve the secular population as well. [End Page 19]

Most current forms of segregation in Israel are relatively new. For example, gender segregation in buses started only in the early 1990s.4 Another famous site of gender segregation, slightly older than the one on public transportation, is at the Western Wall in Jerusalem. There, following the 1967 war, an orthodox synagogue was established, separating men and women, despite the more relaxed approach to mixed prayer at the site during the pre-state years. Women of the Wall, who do not challenge gender segregation at the site, but want to wear traditionally male prayer shawls and read aloud from the Torah (which is forbidden under ultra-Orthodoxy), cannot do so because of the area being declared an Orthodox synagogue.5

The first gender-segregated bus lines, in Jerusalem and in Bnei-Brak (a predominantly ultra-Orthodox city, located east of Tel Aviv), were introduced in the late 1990s. In those buses men enter (and get off the bus) through the front door and sit in the front of the bus, while women enter through the back door and sit at the back. In addition, women are required to dress modestly. Those buses are called by their operator, Egged (the largest transit bus company in Israel, a cooperative owned by its members, and substantially subsidized by the government) and by members of the ultra-Orthodox public "kavey mehadrin" (or "mehadrin lines"). Borrowed from the terminology of Jewish dietary laws (kashrut), the term "mehadrin", which means "embellished", alludes to and signifies a stringent interpretation of Jewish law, and therefore a higher level of dedication and commitment to religious commandments.

Women who do not go to the back of the bus or are not dressed modestly according to ultra-Orthodox standards, whether because they did not notice they were boarding a "mehadrin" bus or because they refuse to adhere to its rules, are often verbally and physically abused.6 Today there are dozens of segregated bus lines that travel across Israel.7

Initially, the Israel Ministry of Transportation held the position that segregation is legitimate, because it is "voluntary". However, as mentioned, women who try to resist the segregation are often attacked (with the bus drivers either ignoring the assaults or actively participating in them); in many cases there are no alternative non-segregated buses on specific routes; and, finally, the rides on many of the segregated buses are cheaper than those on their counterpart non-segregated buses that run along the same route.

In 2007, the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), of the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism, petitioned the Supreme Court against the Ministry of Transportation's refusal...