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‘Go to the back of the bus’: International protests over women’s rights in Israel 

Deborah Stone
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Netanyahu unites US presidents: even Trump detests him

Published: 17 August 2023

Last updated: 5 March 2024

Young women were told to move to the back of the bus because, ‘It’s a Jewish state’. The case is only the tip of growing discrimination against women. 

A group of Australian Jewish women get on a public bus and sit in the closest seats. How can that be a story worth telling in 2023? It is, because the women were protesting an incident in Israel last Sunday when a group of Israeli girls were unable to exercise the same basic right.

International protests this week highlighted the growing experience of discrimination against women in public spaces in Israel, resulting from the influence of the ultra-Orthodox. The problem is aggravated by the Netanyahu government’s moves to reduce the power of the High Court, which has often been the last line of defence for women facing discrimination.

Protests were held in cities including Melbourne, Sydney, London, Munich, Toronto, Belize City, and several US locations. A major women's march will take place in the Haredi city of Bnei Brak next Thursday.

Sunday’s incident occurred when a bus driver from a public transport company demanded that a group of teenage girls sit in the back and cover themselves up, because the bus line also carries ultra-Orthodox passengers. Boys from the same group were seated at the front and prevented from moving to sit with the girls.

<strong>Haaretz Cartoon, August 15, 2023</strong> (Amos Biderman)
Haaretz Cartoon, August 15, 2023 (Amos Biderman)

"We asked him why, and he started telling us that we live in a bubble, that we're wearing nothing, and that's how they're looking at our bodies," said Shaked Rapaport, one of the girls in the group.

Another girl recorded a conversation with the driver, telling him she felt humiliated by his request. His response: "Talk about it on the news … you're from a kibbutz, so you've already answered the question. You're cut off from the world. You live in a Jewish state, and you need to respect the people who live here. The fact that you grew up in a kibbutz, and they taught you that – I'm sorry for you. The education you grew up on is the worst education you can get."

The Jewish Independent

Discrimination against women is illegal in Israel and the Nateev Express company said it would "take all the necessary steps in a determined attempt to prevent a recurrence of such incidences."

Even Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu risked the disapproval of his ultra-Orthodox coalition partners, stating, “The State of Israel is a free country, in which nobody will set limits on who can use public transportation, and in which nobody will dictate where he or she will sit. Those who do this are breaking the law and should be punished.”

But attempts to move women out of public spaces are increasing. Sunday's case one of several recent examples of women being asked to move on buses or airplanes. In one recent case, a woman was told a certain bus line was "just for men".

This week, the Afula Municipality is holding a gender-segregated performance in the city park in violation of three separate judicial rulings.

Images of women, absent from Haredi publications, have been defaced on advertisements and even electoral posters.

The most far-reaching danger for women is the Netanyahu government's move to reduce the power of civil courts and to increase the power of rabbinical courts. The High Court has been used in the past to overturn attempts to discriminate against women, such as a case in which an ultra-Orthodox group attempted to close a public street to women.

The Haredi parties, which hold sway in Netanyahu's coalition, have proposed several bills that attack women's rights. One of the first bills put forth by Shas party proposed jailing women for six months if they visited the holy site of the Western Wall in Jerusalem in “inappropriate” or immodest clothing. Although the bill drew so much outrage that it was dropped, the coalition has taken other steps that worry women.

A woman stripped down to her swimsuit to protest an attempt to restrict women's clothing at the Western Wall
A woman stripped down to her swimsuit to protest an attempt to restrict women's clothing at the Western Wall

A bill, which passed a preliminary Knesset vote in February, proposes authorising rabbinical courts the power to arbitrate on civil cases with the consent of both sides. The courts would then be able to rule on these cases based on Jewish law, which is discriminatory against women. Last month, the Religious Services Ministry submitted another bill that would authorise the rabbinical courts to set alimony and child support during divorce proceedings, even without mutual consent.

Yet another bill proposes allowing private businesses to refuse service to women if dealing with women would violate the owner’s religious beliefs.

There has also been a slow drip of other discriminatory measures. The coalition has barred the use of feminine nouns in advertisements for civil service jobs. A pilot program for gender-segregated swimming at two natural springs was announced two weeks ago by the Israel Nature and Parks Authority.

The international protests are organised by UnXeptable - Saving Israel's Democracy, a global movement rallying in 68 cities worldwide to protest the Netanyahu government’s attacks on democracy.

Protestor Carmel Benjamin said, "I'm protesting here in Australia, where women have equal rights, to highlight what is happening in Israel today. It horrifies me that Israel is becoming like Afghanistan under the Taliban."


Israeli public bus driver tells girls to cover up, sit in back: 'You're in a Jewish State' (Haaretz)

This is how Netanyahu's government plans to enshrine the discrimination of women into law (Haaretz)

Women to march in Bnei Brak in protest of mistreatment on buses (Jerusalem Post) 

After cases of discrimination against women on buses, PM calls to punish offenders (Times of Israel) 

Israeli city to enforce gender segregation at concert in municipal park (Haaretz)

Growing segregation by sex in Israel raises fears for women’s rights (NY Times, paywall)

Photo: Sydney women board a bus to protest gender segregation attempts in Israel (UnXeptable)

About the author

Deborah Stone

Deborah Stone is Editor-in-Chief of TJI. She has more than 30 years experience as a journalist and editor, including as a reporter and feature writer on The Age and The Sunday Age, as Editor of the Australian Jewish News and as Editor of ArtsHub.

The Jewish Independent acknowledges Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples as the Traditional Owners and Custodians of Country throughout Australia. We pay our respects to Elders past and present, and strive to honour their rich history of storytelling in our work and mission.

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