In a pluralistic country, no group has the right to dictate that public spaces or facilities operate according to their cultural norms
eating disputes on overseas flights and on domestic buses are among the hardy perennials of secular-religious tension in Israel. Anyone who flies back and forth to Israel frequently has experienced flights delayed by passenger demands to be moved to a different seat — usually one not next to a woman. And over the years, various efforts have been made, particularly on bus routes primarily serving the chareidi population, to establish separate seating sections for men and women.
In recent years, tensions over seating on buses at least seemed to have abated. But the issue has heated up once again, due to the efforts of demonstrators to oust the Netanyahu-led government.
A large part of the demonstrators' narrative is that the rapidly growing chareidi population seeks to impose its values on the secular population, and, in particular, to impose severe restrictions on women, with respect to how they dress and where they sit on public transportation. At the large demonstration this past Motzaei Shabbos, all the speakers were women, to highlight the struggle for "women's rights."
The extremely well-organized and well-financed opposition has deliberately staged provocations designed to bring the "pushing women aside" issue to the fore. In one such incident, a group of bathing-suit-clad teenage girls got on a bus in Ashdod that was headed for a separate men's beach. The bus driver told them to sit in the back of the bus. The girls subsequently told a Jerusalem Post reporter that they felt "helpless and humiliated" because the passengers on the bus "looked away from us to the floor. There were only chareidi people on the bus, and they did not react."
In another such incident, which garnered a good deal of media attention, a group of women affiliated with Achim Laneshek (Brothers in Arms) got on a bus filled with Gerrer chassidim during bein hazmanim and started singing loudly. A video of their deliberate harassment quickly went viral, after being posted on Kikar HaShabbat. In the video, the Gerrers are shown studiously ignoring the women singing.
Several journalists with secular outlets sharply protested the deliberate provocations. Walla reporter Yaki Adamker wrote: "Finally, these people reveal their true faces — hate, hate, hate. No other words are necessary."
Kan News reporter Omri Chaim wrote: "A group of 'democratic heroes' purposely harass the chareidim — with a smirk on their faces. What times we're in — there are those for whom everything is permitted and those against whom everything is permitted. This scene is sickening."
(To its credit, Achim Laneshek subsequently issued a statement apologizing for the actions of members, and urging all Israelis "to maintain mutual respect, even in such challenging times.")
But the confrontation that received the most international attention started with a tweet by Channel 13 journalist Neria Kraus, who claimed that a chareidi man had asked her to move from her assigned seat, and that a United Airlines attendant had threatened her that the plane would not take off if she did not comply. That account was refuted by the Brooklyn businessman who had asked her to swap aisle seats so his son could sit next to his friend. He related that their conversation had been perfectly pleasant, until he removed his baseball cap and revealed the yarmulke beneath. Only then did she start yelling that she was being asked to move because she was a woman, and not, as was the case, so that his son could sit next to his friend. His version was confirmed by a husband and wife seated directly behind the action.
The reaction to the conflicting accounts by the Times of Israel, which has served as a nonstop cheerleader for the opposition to judicial reforms, was telling. Even after acknowledging that Kraus's account might well be false, and that other passengers had testified that she jumped to conclusions based on the man's religious head covering, the Times of Israel added: "What's clear is that Kraus, a US correspondent for the Israeli TV network Channel 13, has initiated a new episode in a longstanding tension between religious and secular Jews at a time when issues of gender segregation are returning to the fore in Israel."
Needless to say, the online paper neglected to note that those issues were returning to the fore precisely because of an orchestrated campaign to stage incidents that would bring them there.
IN TRUTH, a lot of these points of tension could, I believe, be solved, with a modicum of good will — certainly the issue of men who do not wish to sit next to women on planes. And that is all the more so true, at present, when the owners of El Al are chareidi. While I don't have all the details worked out — and do not intend to spend a lot of time doing so — it occurs to me that El Al might create special sections for men who want to sit only with other men. When making reservations online or through a travel agent, purchasers could be asked if they have any particular religious requirements for whom they are seated with.
But without such systems in place, fliers should not assume that a ticket entitles them to also determine whom they are seated next to, and that is especially true for late-arriving passengers. If one arrives early enough, or uses early check-in, to secure a coveted aisle or window seat, it will usually be easy to exchange it with someone else, though one might have to accept a middle seat in return.
In any event, while El Al is working out the solution to that problem, which leads to so much acrimony on flights, the airline should also work out a schedule for minyanim at a time when there is no cabin service and the disturbance to other passengers and cabin staff is minimal. The times and places for the minyanim could be announced at the beginning of the flight, as they can easily be determined in advance. If these experiments proved successful on El Al, I have little question that they would soon be adopted by other airlines flying to and from Israel.
Unfortunately, the requisite good will is precisely what is lacking, as was demonstrated by the fierce opposition to Minister of Environmental Protection Idit Silman's recent proposal to open certain natural springs near Jerusalem to chareidi bathers after the normal hours — i.e., in a manner that would not diminish the hours the springs are open to mixed bathing one iota.
In the same vein, the attorney general forbade the entirely chareidi city of Elad from holding public concerts with mechitzos, though not one secular person would have been affected in any fashion.
Silman's proposal was used to fan fears of what would surely come next, in the manner of Ha'aretz columnist Uri Misgav's rantings against an earlier version of the proposal: "It will begin with natural springs, continue to segregated walking lanes, and end with allotting men the majority of space and time at women's expense.... Strategically, the chareidim will consume us, there's no alternative. It's not 'anti-Semitism,' it's an honest analysis of social, economic, and demographic trends."
(Recently, Yale University agreed to create gender-segregated dormitories for Muslim students — something it had been unwilling to countenance 25 years earlier for Orthodox Jewish students. Nary a peep was raised that Yale was somehow depriving Muslim students of the educational imperative of mixed dormitory living or the suggestion made that Muslim students would soon "consume" their non-Muslim classmates.)
I FOUND AN ENCOURAGING NOTE in the chareidi responses to the provocations above. According to the testimony of the teenage girls who got on the bus to a separate men's beach, no one looked at them or shouted at them. Rather, they did everything in their power to studiously ignore them. Similarly, in the video of the women singing on a bus filled with Gerrer chassidim, the latter did not take the bait. And in refusing to be provoked, they were following the response of Bnei Brak residents to an opposition march in May, at which the demonstrators were greeted with offers of cholent and drinks and invitations to join the dancing.
These responses leave me hopeful that the Israeli chareidi community has learned something from our American brethren — to wit, that in a pluralistic country, no group has the right to dictate that public spaces or facilities operate according to their cultural norms. I have ridden the F train from Brooklyn to Manhattan enough times to know that it would not occur to any American chareidi to try to dictate the dress of fellow passengers or next to whom one can sit or stand.
We are not like some European Muslims, who, as soon as they become the majority on a particular street or neighborhood, attempt to impose their standards on that area and declare it a "no-go zone" for police and firemen, effectively dar al-Islam, Muslim-conquered territory.
As I wrote last week, nothing is more important than conveying that message to the secular Israeli population. And for our own good. First, so that those of good will not be afraid of accommodations to chareidim, such as hours of separate swimming and the like. And second, so that as the growing chareidi population expands into new cities and towns, we not be greeted with fear and loathing and all manner of obstacles put in our path.