WRJ – Israel: It Really Matters!

March 7, 2012Lynn Magid Lazar

Hello from much-loved Jerusalem - although today we experienced a side of Israel that is a bit harder to love. Let me start by mentioning something about which everyone complains and over which no one has control. Namely, the weather! Israel has been experiencing an abnormally cold and rainy winter, and the arrival of WRJ’s president and executive director has not changed that! Today was exceptionally windy, wet, and chilly. In some ways, appropriate to our experience of participating in a Freedom Ride on public bus #56. As you are probably aware, IRAC (Israel Religious Action Center) recently succeeded in the Israel Supreme Court to prohibit gender segregation on any public bus. Men and women may sit anywhere on any public bus! Of course, enforcing that law is a problematic issue. Furthermore, enabling people to internalize the concept of mixed seating on buses is also a long-term proposition. Therefore, hundreds of volunteers spend time riding buses to encourage and ensure that women may sit anywhere on a bus. [[{"type":"media","view_mode":"media_large","fid":"90141","attributes":{"class":"media-image alignleft","typeof":"foaf:Image","style":"","width":"300","height":"225","alt":""}}]]We boarded a bus in the ultra-Orthodox neighborhood of Ramat Shlomo and rode for about an hour towards downtown Jerusalem, making numerous and frequent stops. We all sat in separate seats in the front of the bus, which would accomplish two goals.  First, any man would have to either sit next to or across from us. Second, there would be an empty seat next to us which we would visually or verbally encourage an Israeli woman to take. What a fascinating social experiment! Almost unanimously, the men would enter the bus, look at the choices of seats, and either stand in the front of the bus or in the aisle. The women had more varied reactions that ranged from totally ignoring us and heading straight to the back of the bus, to making eye contact with us and declining our invitation as they moved to the back of the bus. However, a few very brave women took the seats next to us. Some women would quietly chat with one of us who was a Hebrew speaker. Most poignant were the women who would sit with us for just a few minutes and then nervously get up and move to the back of the bus. How much courage must it have taken to sit next to us in the front of the bus? What internal and external pressures must weigh on them as they walk all the way to the back of a very long bus? Israeli society is facing so many instances of inequality and gender segregation. There are grocery stores with separate lines and separate hours in which men and women may shop! There are health clinics that are gender specific, thus preventing a woman from accompanying her husband or son to the doctor’s office! There is a public talk radio station that allows ONE HOUR per day for women to “voice” their opinions and that is done by faxing in their concerns which are read by a male announcer! In small increments, however, the Reform Movement’s IRAC is making a difference.  The court case against the bus line has been won and violent harassing actions have virtually been eliminated. Efforts to win the hearts and minds of the Orthodox bus riders are being made, one person and one bus ride at a time.  We will prevail. As Anat Hoffman, director of IRAC said at the end of the ride, “We changed the culture on that bus!” We made a difference. It really matters that we care about these issues and it really matters that we take action.  It really matters…..  

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