An Unusual Alliance: Reform Movement Saves a Seat for Orthodox Women on Israeli Buses

by Rachel Canar

Many Orthodox Jews are discreetly celebrating the most recent victory for pluralism in Israel. No longer can there be forced or even suggested gender segregation on Israeli public buses. Ironically, who are they calling to thank? The Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), the public and legal advocacy arm of the Reform Movement in Israel. The first group to petition against the Mehadrin (Kosher) bus lines, IRAC brought the case to the Supreme Court in early 2007, representing five women who were abused on these buses.

Following the initial hearing, many Orthodox women called IRAC to thank the organization. “I can’t believe I am calling to thank the Reform Movement,” one anonymous woman said to an IRAC lawyer, as the Reform movement has a negative reputation in most Orthodox communities. Most women did not provide their names or even their phone number for IRAC to call them back.

“We can’t voice our objection,” said another woman who calls IRAC attorney Tali Aviv regularly, always speaking in a soft voice or even a whisper for fear of being caught opposing gender segregation on buses. Aviv and the entire IRAC legal team (coincidentally, all women) feel proud to be able to provide a voice for these women.

Other women who contacted IRAC gave affidavits about their experiences of discrimination and abuse on these buses. Among these women were activists from the feminist Orthodox organization Kolech (Your Voice), who ultimately joined IRAC as a partner in their petition against the gender segregated buses.

Attorney Riki Shapira, board member and legal adviser to Kolech, explained that “Kolech has a very important role in this case, and it must represent the Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] women who don’t dare to speak out against segregation.” Established just over 12 years ago with a Bat Mitzvah celebration on the way, Kolech’s goal is to achieve gender equality in the Orthodox community in religious services, leadership, and social status among other areas.

The group opened their own anonymous hotline, called Heshmi’ini (“let me hear your voice” in Hebrew), for women that were abused or discriminated on these buses. The many calls that they received were helpful for IRAC’s legal team, as they brought light to the most common methods and triggers of discrimination on these buses.

As the case progressed, other groups joined efforts to defeat the gender segregated buses by recruiting “freedom riders” to ride the buses and record their experiences with discrimination. Among these groups was Yerushalmim (Jerusalemites), which brings together secular and religious activists to promote pluralism in the city, and Yisrael Hofshit (A Free Israel), which advocates for equality in Israel. These accounts were very important for the final hearing in the Supreme Court, as they provided evidence that forced gender segregation on buses causes discrimination and abuse against women.

The road that led to IRAC’s legal victory for pluralism was a manifestation of pluralism in itself. The relationships that blossomed through this struggle still remain and will certainly be instrumental in fighting other forms of religious coercion in the future.

Rachel Canar is Director of Development and International Advocacy, Israel Religious Action Center.