Buses and Boundaries

Thursday, February 4, 2010

This morning, Israel's Supreme Court reconvenes on the matter of "mehadrin"  buses: public transportation in which women are expected, ostensibly on a voluntary basis, to enter from and sit in the back. The Court's hearing is in response to a decision earlier this week by the Transportation Ministry to grant formal recognition to such bus lines, several dozen of which now operate.

Powerful segments of the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) community argue that such segregation is the only way to insure appropriate modesty (tzni'ut) between the sexes. The degree to which Haredim in general agree with this position is not entirely clear, but the very notion is, to say the least, deeply at odds with contemporary non-Haredi sensibilities. Nor are matters helped by the verbal and sometimes physical attacks on women who choose not to conform.

Buses are only one front in the modesty campaign. In recent years, the Haredi establishment has been working to make its standards the norm in many public spaces, most notoriously at the Western Wall. Recently they have also tried to crack down on their own community's use of the Internet. Such moves are in part a reaction to the fact that Haredi women have become better educated, and more present in the workforce, than ever before. It is no less a reaction to the fact that Israeli society, once rather puritan in its public morals, has become markedly permissive, swamped with sex-driven advertising.

Which brings us back to modesty—an issue troubling other Israeli Jews as well, especially in the moderate streams of traditional religious Zionism. With growing numbers of religious youngsters being exposed to books and websites encouraging sexual experimentation, some educators are working to re-articulate the principle of tzni'ut as an ethical idea that challenges the puritans and the promiscuous alike. To be sure, such traditionalist voices are themselves sharply discordant with today's partisans of anything-goes sex, but at a minimum they may induce some wavering liberationists to think through their own first principles. 


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