The Israeli Religious Action Center (IRAC) is forcing Israel’s Supreme Court to rule on the legality of a special Egged bus system that is designed to accommodate the unique needs of the hareidi religious public.

The legal arm of the Reform movement, the IRAC is joined in its complaint against the bus system by Israeli-Anglo writer Naomi Ragen.

The petition, which challenges the legality of the “mehadrin” lines’ policy of separate seating for men and women, claims the practice “causes degradation and damage to human dignity.”

Ragen complains that she was “insulted, humiliated and physically threatened” in 2004 when she insisted on sitting in the men’s section of a gender-separate bus line in Jerusalem. 

"I have joined with the Centre for Jewish Pluralism, part of the Israel Reform Movement, to file suit against Israel's public bus lines, Egged and Dan, and the Israeli Ministry of Transportation, in the name of women who have suffered abuse or who feel that their human rights have been trampled by the public, sex-segregated mehadrin lines. The suit asks that these buses be suspended until a survey is conducted to gauge the true need for them. If such a need can be proven, the suit asks that provisions be made to clearly mark such buses; that rules governing public behaviour on them be openly displayed, and that provisions be made to protect women passengers from verbal and physical abuse. The petition also demands that alternate public bus lines be made available on the same routes and at the same price."

Reform Jews do not consider themselves bound by Torah mandates such as those relating to separation of the genders, but there are many observant Jews who have difficulty with these issues as well. Many, however, feel more comfortable in such an environment.

“There are lines all over the country, traveling to the same places, in which anyone can sit anywhere they like,” one regular rider on the mehadrin line told IsraelNationalNews.  “There is no reason for a woman to sit in a men’s section on a bus clearly intended to cater to those who observe Torah law,” he said, “other than for the purpose of deliberate provocation.”

The rider, who requested anonymity, likened the situation to that of a woman insisting on using the men’s public restroom. “It’s not illegal for a woman to force her way into a men’s bathroom,” he said. “But it would be unusual and bad-mannered, to say the least.”

The state argues that the seating arrangement is voluntary and that the bus operators do not force passengers to sit in any particular area, but that the restrictions are set by the community served by the line.

The standard Israeli public bus system, in which there is no gender separation on the buses, includes routes traveling to every destination served by the “mehadrin” line. 

The separate, “mehadrin” system was created in 2001 in response to a growing demand by hareidi religious Jews for a bus line that would enable men and women to travel separately without being forced into uncomfortably close proximity, especially on crowded buses.

The “mehadrin” line provides for separate seating and offers direct bus service between cities with large hareidi religious populations.