An ostensible attempt by an anti-overhaul group to hold dialogue with Haredi passengers aboard a bus Wednesday broke down after members of both groups began singing loudly at each other.
The incident went viral, with government supporters accusing the activists of provocative and spiteful anti-religious conduct while critics contended it was the Haredi passengers who had instigated the fight.
It came after multiple recent incidents in public transportation in which secular women faced discriminatory comments or behavior from drivers or passengers based on their dress, and as societal tensions between right and left and between religious and secular rise over the government’s efforts to curtail some of the judiciary’s jurisdiction.
Bus lines catering to mostly Haredi populations have come under criticism — and legal scrutiny — in the past for practicing gender segregation, with men sitting in the front and women in the back. Though such practices have been declared illegal by the courts in any official capacity, Haredim continue to adhere to them informally on some lines.
In Wednesday’s incident, male and female activists from Brothers in Arms, a group of military reservist protesters against the overhaul, boarded a bus connecting Ashdod and Bnei Brak, a predominantly Haredi suburb of Tel Aviv. The group, whose activists were wearing t-shirts emblazoned with the movement’s logo, said this was an attempt at nurturing dialogue.
Most of the female activists sat down in the back of the bus. The male activists sat in the front of the bus among the other passengers, who seemed to be predominantly Haredi.
In footage of interactions on the bus, secular and Haredi men are seen talking in the front, before the discourse becomes heated and several Haredi men are seen shouting at the activists.
"אחים לנשק מציגים":
מציקים לחרדים!. pic.twitter.com/Y1T2D8DA5l
— איתמר כרמון | itamar carmon (@itamarcarmon) August 16, 2023
“We don’t come to your buses, why do you come to ours, to harass us?” one man is seen asking. A woman standing in the front replies: “This is a free country and everyone is equal under the law here.”
Footage taken later during the same ride show some of the Haredi men singing a Hassidic song loudly, in an apparent attempt to drown out the activists. The women in the back are also seen singing “Hevenu Shalom Aleichem” — a familiar folk song whose lyrics mean “We bring peace to you” — as some Haredi passengers near them cover their ears and stir in their seats. Many Haredi men consider it immodest to hear women singing.
The women’s defiant singing as the religious passengers covered their ears was the first video to make it online, leading to some intense criticism of the activists on social media for allegedly taking intentional provocative action offensive to the Haredi men.
Ofir Katz, a prominent member of Likud, told Ynet that the women’s actions were “shocking.” Harassment of female passengers is “unacceptable and I condemn it: Women should be able to sit wherever they want on the bus. But what the activists did to the Haredim, isn’t that a horrible thing? That’s not evil? That’s not cruel?”
The outrage caused by the initial video led activists to publish the earlier clips that preceded the singing, which they said was important as context.
In a statement about the exchange on the bus, a spokesperson for Brothers in Arms said that the joint bus ride initiative “was intended to generate an honest and true dialogue with our Haredi brethren at a time when the gaps separating us seem greater than ever. Sadly, excluding women from public transportation is being legitimized in Israel today.”
The spokesperson added: “Our activists engage skillfully and devotedly in a respectful dialogue with thousands of Haredim, yet we nonetheless apologize to the passengers who were offended.”
An earlier version of the statement said that in the heated exchange, there was some “inappropriate behavior by some of our activists, which we regret. That is not our way.” However, this assertion was later edited out of the statement posted to the social media channels of Brothers in Arms.
Eyal Naveh, a spokesperson for the group, told The Times of Israel that the omission owed to “new videos that surfaced, which showed abuse and misconduct” by the Haredi passengers toward at least one of the women. His group “regrets if the action upset anyone, and apologizes to them.” But upon reviewing the videos, “there was no inappropriate conduct by our activists, and of course that women singing is not inappropriate,” Naveh said.
Videos that Naveh shared of the heated exchange did not appear to contain documentation of abuse by the Haredi passengers, though one of them seemed to be telling a female activist to return to the back of the bus. She was seen declining to do so, telling him that “women and men have equality in this country.”
Brothers in Arms issued a further statement on their Facebook page Thursday that appeared unapologetic: “We want you to know that our activity is important and positive, we stand behind our dedicated activists who do important work, generating a dialogue with the Haredi society.”
מבט אל תוך האוטובוס בארוע אחים לנשק לפני ארוע השירה של הנשים – מה היה לפני pic.twitter.com/wk48qcq6mc
— לירי בורק שביט (@lirishavit) August 17, 2023
Brothers in Arms describes itself as a protest movement by army reservists who oppose the government’s judicial overhaul, a plan that seeks to weaken the judiciary and transfer some of its powers to the executive and legislative branches. Opponents of the plan say it endangers democracy because it compromises the judiciary’s independence. Proponents of the project say it strengthens democracy by reversing an alleged power grab by the courts and bureaucrats and restoring some powers that the proponents say should be in the hands of elected officials.
Relations between secular and religious Israel — particularly the Haredi sector — have also been dragged into the controversy, as a key objective of ultra-Orthodox parties in enacting the judicial changes is to limit court oversight on issues of religion and state, including their bid to secure a broad draft exemption from service for Haredi men.
And protesters have increasingly painted the overhaul as serving efforts by Haredim to silence women, limit female representation and curb their rights — as exemplified by the use of imagery from the TV series The Handmaid’s Tale by many female protesters.
This month, reports in the media recorded at least four cases of women who allegedly encountered difficulties connected to religious men’s conduct aboard transportation.
In one case, a bus driver ordered a group of teenage girls to sit in the back and cover themselves up on a bus from Ashdod to the Galilee. Separately, an 88-year-old woman from Givatayim said that a bus driver ignored her when she asked him if she had gotten on the correct line, before saying that he refuses to speak to women.
In Tel Aviv, a driver berated a woman for wearing a tank top and in Ashdod, a bus driver told a woman that she could not board a bus because it was meant only for ultra-Orthodox men.
Israel once had several so-called Mehadrin (strictly kosher) bus lines, where female and male passengers traveled in separate parts of the vehicle to accommodate ultra-Orthodox passengers. In 2011, the High Court of Justice ruled that it was illegal for anyone, including bus companies and passengers, to enforce this practice.
However, sex segregation continues to be practiced on several lines with many Haredi passengers, and drivers do sometimes ask women to sit in the back of the bus, Channel 13 reporters showed in an investigative journalism item aired Wednesday. It showed Haredi men and women asking two female journalists wearing shorts to sit in the back of the bus. In at least one case, individuals spat in the direction of the reporters, they said, and one Haredi woman warned them that they would be spat on.
Separately, a reporter for Channel 13 said Tuesday that Haredi passengers on her flight from the United States to Israel asked that she switch seats so they wouldn’t have to sit next to her because she’s a woman. One of the Haredi passengers disputed this was the case, saying the request was merely so his son could sit next to his friend.