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Israel bus rule sparks religious row

Published: 11:00PM Tuesday January 15, 2008 Source: Reuters

Every time Israeli student Iris Yoffe takes the bus to Jerusalem, she has to be ready for abuse from ultra-Orthodox Jews who say she should be kept off because she's wearing trousers.

Assuming she makes it onto the bus at all - on several occasions groups of Orthodox men have tried to block the door - Yoffe, 24, heads for the "women's section" at the back of the bus, keeps her head down and tries to ignore the insults.

"I end up feeling helpless and humiliated, like an outsider," said Yoffe, whose public bus from her home in northern Israel to Jerusalem has separate male and female seating because it runs through an ultra-Orthodox community.

A row over Israel's buses underscores the schism between its ultra-Orthodox minority - who believe women should don long skirts and stay away from men in public - and those who want to keep the country, and its public transport system, secular.

The controversy started several years ago when, in order to compete with private firms, Israel's publicly funded bus companies introduced separate seating on some routes through Orthodox areas. Women who board these buses sit at the back.

In theory, wearing a skirt and sitting in the women's section is voluntary, but several secular women including a well-known author have reported being abused and even attacked for not doing so.

Ruling this week

Israel's High Court is expected to rule this week on a petition by a group of women who want the government and public bus companies either to stop the "mehadrin" lines or to provide alternative buses on those routes.

"The partition between men and women is being taken from the synagogue into public spaces," said Anat Hoffman, head of the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), the advocacy arm of the Reform Judaism movement, which helped bring the lawsuit.

Hoffman is worried that "partition" could make further inroads into public life, saying one post office in an Orthodox neighbourhood has separate waiting lines for men and women.

A transport ministry spokesman said the bus seating system was voluntary and it was up to the public companies to address any violence the rules provoked.

A spokesman for Israel's biggest bus company, Egged - which has previously said it runs about 30 public mehadrin lines - could not be reached on Monday.

The Orthodox Jewish Media Resources group said separate seating helped men resist the temptation to ogle women but acknowledged that mehadrin lines should only run on routes where the vast majority of passengers are religious.

"Without exception, the rules should not be enforced by individual passengers," said Jonathan Rosenblum, who is also a commentator and acts as a spokesman for the Orthodox community.

US-born novelist Naomi Ragen, one of the women behind the High Court petition, said she was insulted and physically threatened when she accidentally boarded a mehadrin bus and refused to move to the back. Another woman was reported to have been spat at and beaten for refusing to move.

Ragen, herself an Orthodox Jew, described the incidents on her website as "bullying women in the name of God".

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