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Israeli women losing rights { February 11 2007 }

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In Israel, orthodox clash over rights
Special to Newsday

February 11, 2007

JERUSALEM - It began as a dull summer day. Naomi Ragen had run out of steam on her morning walk so she boarded a city bus bound for home, settling into a single seat behind the driver.

Moments later, an ultra-orthodox man boarded and demanded she move to the back to separate herself, for religious reasons, from the men at the front. Surrounded by rows of empty seats, the 57-year-old grandmother refused. The man started yelling and calling her names and soon, others joined in.

That showdown is just one example of a growing debate here that pits the religious rights of Israel's small but influential Haredi community against the civil rights of women.

The segregation of city buses and the creation of "morality squads" that patrol Jerusalem's orthodox streets to root out "immodest behavior" are part of a new and controversial campaign launched recently by local leaders of the Haredi community, which follows a very strict interpretation of Judaism.

For Ragen, an orthodox Jew and well-known author of several novels about the Haredis, the altercation on the bus was alarming. "It was the worst possible kind of abuse. I sat there feeling like Rosa Parks," said Ragen, an Israeli-American who grew up in Far Rockaway before moving to Jerusalem 35 years ago.

Petition for change

A group of Israeli women, including Ragen, petitioned the country's high court last week to order public bus companies to add parallel routes for secular passengers or stop the segregation altogether.

Segregated buses used to be relegated to a few designated routes catering to Haredi riders whose strict religious beliefs forbid physical contact in public between men and women, but the system has spread to 30-plus bus lines, running through mixed neighborhoods as the only service available to secular riders.

Human rights groups say the issue of segregated buses is part of a wider, more disturbing trend: the radicalization of Israel's orthodox society, which in turn is eroding women's rights.

"It's open season now," said Orly Erez-Likhovski, a lawyer with Israel Religious Action Committee, a human rights group that is supporting Ragen's petition. "[It's] part of the radicalization of the orthodox society, but it's having a huge impact on the rest of us."

In recent months, orthodox rabbis have dispatched "morality squads" to Jerusalem's orthodox neighborhoods to confiscate "clothes of impurity" to be publicly torched later. Clothing stores in Jerusalem have reported attacks by "bleach patrols" - groups of ultra-orthodox men who throw bleach at racks of clothes they deem inappropriate. At least two clothing stores - one in Jerusalem and one in Bnei Brak, an orthodox community just east of Tel Aviv - have been set ablaze in the past few months for selling what the patrols saw as revealing clothing.

And a recent rabbinical ruling forbids Haredi women from pursuing post-secondary education, angering many orthodox women who are expected to support their families while their husbands devote their time to religious study.

"The collective and humiliating announcement about closing down the courses ... struck me like a thunderbolt," a Haredi teacher recently wrote in an anonymous letter to the rabbis who drafted the policy. "Everyone says the women must be the breadwinners, fine ... but let me make a decent living for my family," she wrote in the letter first published on a Haredi Web site.

Others come forward

Since Ragen went public on the bus issue, dozens of other women have stepped forward complaining of similar abuse. A visiting Canadian woman who refused to move to the back of the bus was beaten by a fellow passenger. An Israeli woman was forced off a bus in the middle of the night along a lonely stretch of highway because the driver considered her skirt too short. Another woman was barred from boarding a bus because she was wearing pants.

Israel's Transportation Ministry declined to comment but is expected to submit a defense of its policy to the high court this week. Ministry spokesmen have said previously that segregation on buses is strictly voluntary and designed for the comfort of the religious riders. Enforcement is left to the discretion of passengers, they maintain.

Ragen disagrees. "There is nothing voluntary about this," she said. "When I got off the bus I felt like crying. I felt bullied. Nobody's going to tell me it's not symbolic to force women to the back. Why should men and women have to be separated for religious reasons on public transportation? People don't use a bus to pray ... "

Other orthodox women struggle to find a balance between religion and women's rights in Israel. Tzvia Greenfield, a Haredi woman and former Knesset member, worries about the "imposition of Western culture on our private beliefs."

"One doesn't want to see a way of life die out. But ... I consider myself a liberal thinker and segregated buses are very, very disturbing to me," she said.

Greenfield was confronted on a bus recently by a group of male passengers who ordered her to the back. "I felt torn. I understand the importance of protecting our traditions, but I also believe it is my personal right to sit where I want," she said. That day, she decided to stay put.

Copyright 2007 Newsday Inc.

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