Monday, March 22, 2010

Experiences in Israel: Public/Private Transportation

The following is cross-posted from Dr. Lisa Grant's blog, 'Israel Stories'.  Lisa is Professor of Education at Hebrew Union College and is currently on sabbatical in Israel.  She is a member of our congregation.  In her blog she shares reflections on some of her experiences.  In this, her latest posting, Lisa reflects on the experience of using public transportation in Israel, and brings attention to the gender-segregated public bus routes that run through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods that have literally put women at the back of the bus.  The Israel Religious Action Center and other Israeli human rights organizations are fighting this very troubling turn to religious extremism in the public sphere in Israel.

One of the simple pleasures of being on sabbatical in Jerusalem is that my main mode of transportation is my feet. I also take the bus a lot, especially since the trip to school is uphill from my apartment and I’m usually carrying books and my computer. When I stay in town, my circuit is pretty small, probably not much more than one and a half square miles or so. In that space, I can find all of my local friends, school, shuls, theatres and other cultural venues, the gym (of course!) and any shopping I want or need to do. For someone who spends an awful lot of time commuting back and forth to New York City during my “normal” life, this is a lovely respite that adds lots of extra hours to my week for other pursuits.

There are times, of course, when this narrow orbit feels a bit constrained and then I head to Tel Aviv, usually by sherut, a 10-passenger shared taxi that goes from downtown Jerusalem to the central bus station in Tel Aviv which makes the Port Authority bus station in New York look like a luxury spa. From there, I then take another interesting conveyance, a shared mini-bus that drops you off anywhere you’d like along a specified route.

Occasionally, I get rides from friends who take me home after an evening visit, or even if they see me standing at a bus stop. It’s those rides that make me think about how different it is seeing Jerusalem and the rest of Israel from inside a private car as compared to from one or another mode of public transportation.

The buses and shared taxis are windows into the rich and complex social fabric of this not altogether Jewish state. On any given bus trip, you are likely to see a wide range of skin colors and hear a polyglot of languages including Hebrew, Arabic, English, Russian, French, Spanish, German, Portuguese and who knows what else. The passengers are schoolchildren, the elderly, commuters, tourists, soldiers, foreign workers, certainly rabbis and even a few priests. It’s one of the few places where a Jew might sit next to an Arab, not that they’d actually speak to one another.

Now, if I really lived here and wasn’t just a part-time sojourner, I know I’d have a car and that would change a lot. I got a taste of that this past weekend when I rented a car and was able to visit four different friends who live in suburbs of Tel Aviv and Netanya and in the lower Galilee. It felt great to be in a peppy little car where I could set my route and schedule, going wherever and whenever I wanted. But, it also made me realize that being in a private car creates a buffer to the outside world. The only link is the radio that gives regular traffic bulletins and news on the hour that reports the usual murder and mayhem but of quite a different ilk from what you’d hear on a typical American FM station – rockets fired from Gaza to a field outside of Ashkelon, IDF soldiers killing two Palestinian teenagers in Nablus who attacked them with a pitchfork, a Supreme court ruling overturning a Jewish town’s attempt to block a Bedouin family from moving in. But all of this is just background noise when you are zipping along the super highway and mainly concerned that the drivers around you won’t do anything crazy or stupid.

The car radio is a disembodied voice; in contrast, the bus is a live performance. Phone etiquette is pretty much non-existent and at times, it seems as if everyone is talking on the phone. If they aren’t talking, they’re eating, and if they aren’t eating, they might be davening tehilim (psalms) or studying a daf gemara (page of Talmud).

Private transportation is personal and liberating. It’s also protected. It’s up to you where to go and when to stop. Public transportation demands more direct engagement with the world. You have to accommodate more to the route & schedule. Of course you can plug into your IPod and tune out but if you pay attention, you see things you might otherwise ignore, the throngs who converge at the central bus station, and constant reminders of the persistence of poverty among Israel’s underclass – Ethiopians, Arabs, foreign workers, African refugees, and many many more.

Public transportation is also supposed to be fully and equally accessible to all members of society and that what I normally see when I climb onto a bus or sherut. But, sadly, even this basic right is at risk here. Last Saturday night I went to a demonstration with an estimated 2000 other people to protest the increasing number of gender segregated bus lines. The impetus for this comes from the Ultra-Orthodox community whose male members find it objectionable to have any kind of social contact with women so they have been relegated to the back of the bus, literally and truly. There are currently between 58 and 63 such gender-segregated inner and intra-city routes. In some cases, the only option for travelers is to sit in a gender segregated section regardless of who their travel companions might be. Despite condemnation by the Supreme Court , the Transportation minister and the quasi- public bus company continue the practice. 

Though the abuse that Women at the Wall receive on a monthly basis from Ultra-Orthodox men when they gather to pray on Rosh Chodesh is getting a lot more press (at least in blogs and Facebook), these segregated bus lines are a far more insidious erosion of democratic values and respect for human rights that effect people daily not just for an hour or once a month. The demonstration was a hopeful sign that people are waking up to the reality that segregated bus lines are not just an issue for those who can’t afford a car. The gathering was a wonderful mix of Orthodox, Secular, Conservative, and Reform Jerusalemites. It was organized by a broad-based coalition of human rights organizations including a new forum of young adults who are active in building bridges across different social and religious sectors and working together to make Jerusalem a more tolerant and pluralistic city.

There were all kinds of signs and placards at the demonstration and the requisite number of speeches from activists and politicians. Perhaps the most compelling sign was a small, hand-made one that said something like “Segregated bus lines is an issue for the entire country, not just Jerusalem.” Indeed, even for those who never step up onto a bus, this issue gets to the bedrock of what it means to live in a civil society where everyone has equal rights. As such, it seems that it's high time for everyone to get out from behind the protection of their private cars and join the cacophony of the daily show of life on the public routes and buses of Israel.

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