Tuesday, April 24, 2007

No Cooties Bus Lines

Some Israeli women are suing to eliminate gender-segregated bus routes in Israel. "Modesty buses," in which men ride at the front and women ride at the back, provide transportation on about 60 routes throughout the country.

Although those sixty are only a tiny fraction of the thousands of bus routes in Israel, many of them are in Jerusalem, and many of them offend and inconvenience riders--especially female riders. Those riders particularly resent that the buses are state-subsidized. They say, rightly, that while ultra-Orthodox Jews have the right to ride on segregated buses, they don't have the right to force all Israelis--many of whom are non-Orthodox, some of are non-Jewish--to pay for their own segregation.

Some apologists for the bus lines try to say that this is good segregation, not bad segregation. Shlomo Rosenstein, a Jerusalem city councillor, wants us to believe that "this really is about positive discrimination, in women's favor" because "our religion says there should be no public contact between men and women [and therefore] this modesty barrier must not be broken."

That's not a very good explanation. I'm not a Talmudic scholar, but I'm willing to bet that there's nothing in the Jewish holy writings expressly forbidding that "a man and a woman should commit a sin in the eyes of the LORD their GOD by traveling in shameful mixture on the Jerusalem number 40 express."

More importantly, I'm inclined to agree with Thurgood Marshall's insight in Brown v. Board of Education that the impulse to segregate is almost inevitably the result and the cause of inequality. (I wonder, for example, how the male defenders of the segregated buses would handle being made to ride in the back.) And, once again, I realize how nice it is to live in a country governed by the First Amendment, which prevents the establishment of a state religion and therefore makes it harder for people to turn "our religion" into state policy.

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