World News

Israel told to end abuse on Orthodox bus routes

JERUSALEM (Reuters) - Israel’s high court on Tuesday told the transport ministry to look into problems on bus routes in Orthodox areas that separate men and women, after complaints that some passengers were being verbally and physically abused.

A number of female passengers said they were humiliated and even attacked for not using seats reserved for women at the back of some publicly-funded buses or because of their clothing.

The ruling stopped short of ordering bus companies to stop the “mehadrin” lines but asks the transport ministry to form a committee within 30 days to study the problems and recommend changes.

“We think the transportation minister should create such a forum as soon as possible to allow him to hear from the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) public and from the petitioners and their supporters,” the court said.

The row over Israel’s buses underscores the schism between its ultra-Orthodox minority -- who believe women should wear long skirts and stay away from men in public -- and those who want to keep the country, and its public transport, secular.

The controversy started several years ago when, in order to compete with private firms, Israel’s publicly-funded bus companies introduced separate seating on some routes through Orthodox areas. Women who board these buses sit at the back.

In theory, wearing a long skirt and sitting in the women’s section is voluntary, but several secular women have reported being abused, verbally and physically, for not doing so.

Anat Hoffman, head of the Israel Religious Action Center, the advocacy arm of the Reform Judaism movement which helped bring the lawsuit, said she was glad the high court saw the need to address problems created by the policy.

“We welcome the idea to create a forum that will seriously examine the issue and examine real ways to address the needs of a diverse public without hurting the right of privacy,” Hoffman said.