The Transportation Ministry on Sunday submitted its response to the High Court of Justice in the matter of separation between men and women on 'mehadrin' bus lines.
According to Transportation Minister Yisrael Katz's recommendation, the State plans to allow "voluntary" segregation. This means an arrangement in which the passengers on certain bus lines agree to the separation.
Katz's decision comes in line with a Transportation Ministry committee recommendation which ruled that separation should be allowed if agreed upon.
According to the minister's decision, the segregation will be allowed in bus lines that already act as 'mehadrin' lines, which serve mainly the ultra-Orthodox public.
"We are assuming that there is nothing wrong with the concept of buses with segregation, which comes to meet the needs of the haredi public," Katz said.
The Transportation Ministry added, "The public transportation operators should be allowed to put up 'conduct suggestion' signs that provide an explanation and a request from the passengers to sit separately – while stressing that there is no obligation to do so."
'Not religious coercion'
The ultra-Orthodox heads of the struggle welcomed the recommendation and the Rabbinical Committee for Transportation Affairs estimated that the mehadrin lines' most vocal objectors will actually be the ones to tip the scales in favor of segregations, as they will cause most of the public, and as a result the court, to support the struggle.
"At first there was no demand to close the mehadrin lines, and the petitioners only wanted regular bus lines parallel to them, but the dynamic that developed later became antagonistic," the committee's spokesman Shimon Stern told Ynet.
"Over all, it turns out that it was actually good for us that this happened… We are pleased with Minister Yisrael Katz's recognition of the needs of the haredi public… Seven countries in the world have separate cars for women who desire it, and it is legitimate to have this in Israel as well."
Regarding the restriction stipulated in the minister's response to the court, stating that female passengers cannot be forced or obligated to sit in the back, Stern said, "We have always stressed that this should be done willingly and not coerced, and so, this entire legal proceeding was unnecessary.
"It's a pity we wasted so much of the public's money, and I regret the slander and the defamation that was directed at us. The judges have said from the start that there is a need for mehadrin lines and that they only have to be regulated."
Rebbetzin Grossman of the "world women's lobby for halachic transportation" also welcomed the minister's recommendation and his "sensitivity to the female public in Israel". She expressed hope that the High Court judges would also take into consideration the "hundreds of thousands of women who which to maintain a normative lifestyle."
She said, "This is not religious coercion, but our way of life – from kindergarten to marriage – that should be respected. If the municipality considers the haredi public and operates separate public parks – there is no reason why public transportation should not be that way. We are coming only from a position of understanding. Even the gentiles in New York accept this."
'Who will ensure women's safety?'
Meanwhile, the Religious Action Center criticized the minister's response to the court. Attorney Einat Horowitz, head of the center's legal department, who has been leading the battle against the segregated bus lines said, "This decision raises many questions. Among other things, the minister will have to clarify how this arrangement would ensure the safety of the women who refuse to sit in the back.
"The minister's stance also ignores the need to ensure a fitting alternative to anyone who wishes to travel in bus lines without segregations, and does not address at all the significant difference in prices that makes the mehadrin bus lines much cheaper than what is offered to the secular public."
Jerusalem city council member Rachel Azaria added, "The recommendation is purely political, and was written because Shas and Agudat Israel are strong in the government.
"A woman should not be forced to sit in the back of these lines because of the number of seats Shas has. Minister Katz has betrayed his constituents. He is betraying the secular, traditional, religious, and even most of the haredi public – for the sake of haredi extremists. As a public representative he should remember that this is the public that is meant to vote for him when the time comes."
Shahar Hazelkorn contributed to this report