Jewish Women No Longer in the Back of the Bus

There is an alarming trend of gender segregation and gender discrimination in Jerusalem, spearheaded by segments of the ultra-Orthodox community. Examples include gender-segregated buses, which are currently growing in occurrence under the authority of the Ministry of Transportation. There are also escalating degrees of discrimination at the Western Wall and in the Jewish quarter, and there is a prohibition against presenting women in advertisements in the city’s public spaces, according to Rachel Azaria, a city council member and founder of the social change organization Yerushalmim (Jerusalemites).

Targum Shlishi is supporting Yerushalmim’s program “Inclusive Jerusalem: The Struggle Against Religious Extremism” by funding a legal defense initiative to counter haredi extremism. This pioneering initiative, established in 2010, seeks to raise public awareness of the issue gender discrimination, generate public pressure against the new extreme practices, and use the legal system to fight the discrimination.

“Our primary objective in this campaign is to re-establish the Zionist and inclusive nature of the Jewish sections of the Old City of Jerusalem,” explains Azaria. “We are encouraged by the success we’ve achieved so far and also by the supportive responses from within the ultra-Orthodox community, both public delegates and citizens, who are supportive of our actions and relieved that something is finally being done to protect them against the extreme sects within their society.”

In 2010 Yerushalmim initiated legal action against the gender-segregated buses, bringing the case to the Supreme Court of Israel. That legal campaign resulted in a court ruling in November 2010 stating that the buses are illegal, but that the arrangement can be maintained voluntarily. Yerushalmim was also involved in legal action in September 2010 when gender segregation was enforced on the main street in Me’ah She’arim and adjoining alleyways: the road and sidewalks were allocated to men only, while the women were instructed to walk on a narrow pathway. Yerushalmim petitioned the Supreme Court, which ruled that the police immediately remove all barriers.

“The increasing push for gender segregation and the growing instances of discrimination against women are simply unacceptable and in violation of the democratic ideals that the State of Israel was founded on,” says Aryeh Rubin, director of Targum Shlishi. “Gender segregation is a slippery slope – history has shown us that segregation tends to foster discrimination, inequality, and lack of respect. It is significant that the discrimination is being effected by a very small, very vocal and powerful, extreme segment of the population – much of the ultra-Orthodox community is opposed to this type of extremism. It is critical to address this issue now, and prevent further negative developments.”

In 2011 Yerushalmim will continue combating gender segregation, discrimination, and the exclusion of women from Jerusalem’s public arena through efforts to raise public awareness and bring the attention of public delegates to this subject. Next steps will focus on the issues of women’s images in the city and the increasing expression of ultra-Orthodox extremism currently impacting the Jewish Quarter of the Old City of Jerusalem.