It all boils down to this. Same buses, same passengers, only different government.
No one can remember a time in Israel’s 75-year existence when teen girls were told to cover themselves up with a drape and sit in the back of the bus if they wanted to be transported, but that’s exactly what happened on Sunday when a group of girls boarded a Nativ Express bus line in the port city of Ashdod. Although the girls were accompanied by teen boys, they were immediately separated, once on the bus, as boys were told to sit up front while the girls were relegated to the rear.
The unjustifiable reason given was that the bus is an ultra-Orthodox line that picks up the religious. In response to one girl complaining that she had been humiliated, the bus driver commented, “Go tell Channel 12. Enough with this nonsense, you don’t have religious people in your home. You live in a kibbutz, detached from the world. You live in a Jewish state and you should respect the people living here. The fact that you live in a kibbutz and were raised this way, I’m sorry for you. I know that you feel comfortable being naked.”
Since everything is filmed, via cellphones, these days, the news coverage showed the girls, covered up in a drape, on a day when temperatures soared to over 40F (around 100+ degrees Fahrenheit) in certain parts of the country. The teens, who rode the bus, were dressed in cut-off jean shorts and tank tops – pretty much what most secular Israeli kids wear during the hot, summer months.
It didn’t matter that these girls asserted their right to dress as they please and sit where they want, given that Israel is a democratic country, it was clear that they had no choice. They were either going to comply with the driver’s demands or simply not be transported. In addition to his arbitrary dictates, the driver went on to pass judgment on these girls by unapologetically stating that they had been badly reared. But, he didn’t stop there. He continued to lecture them about how they should live, conduct themselves and make sure to pass on those values, espoused by him, to their parents.
Ironically, an ultra-Orthodox passenger told one of the girls that she had no problem with the boys and girls sitting together.
Although the bus company is investigating the incident, stating that they do not condone any discriminatory practices, at least one women’s rights group believes that this is a direct reflection of the current Israeli government’s new direction, which they claim is attempting to “exclude and erase women from the public sphere.”
In a separate incident, another bus driver, who works for the Dan Bus company, refused to answer a female passenger’s question, advising the woman’s husband that he does not speak to women. In this case, the elderly woman happened to be a Holocaust survivor who, as she put it, was made to feel as if she was in Iran, wondering if she will also have to cover her face.
In a 2011 Supreme Court ruling, such discriminatory practices, towards women, were ruled to be illegal, but some drivers obviously think that they can, nevertheless, enforce and impose their stringent values on Israeli secular youth while, at the same time, shaming them into the corner. Going one step further, they feel the liberty to condemn the type of upbringing these girls received both at home and in school. Why now? Connecting those dots is not too difficult.
Does anyone think that this type of coercive and insulting behavior by a bus employee, who is paid to provide a service to the public, will change the hearts and minds of Israel's secular youth? Quite the opposite! Not only will it not convince them that they are, indeed, immoral kids who lack decency and honor, but it will, likely, anger other secular viewers who have all the more reason to believe that there is a sudden takeover of what constitutes a respectful way of life in the Jewish state.
It might even ruffle a few feathers among the more liberal religious members of society who do not feel that coercion is a winning formula to bring about unwanted change.
By the way, if layers of clothing are a gauge of what constitutes respect and the preservation of the character within the Jewish state, why was there an article, in the weekend paper, which exposed a well-known ultra-Orthodox rabbi who repeatedly abused children, finally being arrested? Why is it that this is not an isolated story?
It is exactly this kind of heavy-handed, overreaching activism, which many Israeli citizens predicted could easily try to hijack the pluralistic society which showed tolerance to a variety of people groups, who made individual lifestyle choices, that did not comport with the ultra-religious but neither sought to be disrespectful or place demands that everyone conform to their particular viewpoint.
Israel must never find itself emulating the mullahs of Iran, who have made their country a place where women are subjugated and almost completely visually erased by the layers of garb they are required to wear in order to satisfy some religious fanatics who believe that holiness and purity are an extension of not being able to feel the wind blow through your hair.
Such extremism will only further drive an already huge wedge into our country, confirming that what we feared has already come upon us.
For those who support this kind of oppressive overreach, it might be good to remind them, as well as all of Israel’s bus drivers, that the very girls, who were ridiculed and humiliated are those who will be soldiers next year and the year after, doing their part to protect all of Israel’s citizens from attack, including the ultra-Orthodox.
Will they still hear condemning voices that say they were raised badly, as they pick up their weapons and risk their lives in order to secure the safety of us all?
A former Jerusalem elementary and middle-school principal and the granddaughter of European Jews who arrived in the US before the Holocaust. Making Aliyah in 1993, she is retired and now lives in the center of the country with her husband.