In a case reminiscent of the battles over segregated buses of the early 2010s, the legal advocacy arm of the Reform Movement announced on Tuesday that it was suing Israel Railways after an employee allegedly demanded that a female passenger change seats because men were praying nearby.
Together with the Israel Women’s Network, the Israel Religious Action Center launched its suit on behalf of Maya Melitz, who they said was asked by an Israel Railways employee to vacate her seat because men were praying in the same train car.
“Maya didn’t understand why she needed to move and refused, emphasizing that the train is a public place and not an Orthodox synagogue,” the two organizations said in a statement.
“The employee persisted and asked her again to move to a different rail car because ‘it was disruptive that she was present in the rail car during prayer’ but Maya refused.”
Orthodox commuters on Israel Railways trains frequently hold Jewish prayer services, complete with a mini-Torah scroll.
Claiming that Israel Railways ignored their inquiries regarding compensation, the two groups then sued for NIS 66,969 ($19,584), IWN and IRAC said, describing the employee’s request as a violation of the Prohibition Against Discrimination Act.
“At first I was shocked by the request to move from my seat on the train,” Melitz said.
“The shock turned into offense that my presence, just because I am a woman, disrupted others from praying and that the only solution was that I would move. Just a moment before, I was enjoying listening to the prayer itself while minding my own business, and then the railway employee tried to explain to me that my mere existence was harmful to someone else.”
IWN and IRAC stated that because this was not the first such incident, Israel Railways must publish written guidelines informing employees that such behavior is illegal.
“It is unacceptable that a railway employee demand that a woman move to a different rail car because the fact that she is a woman disrupts prayer in that rail car. It is hard to believe that in 2020 women still need to fight for the right to be present in the public domain,” said IRAC executive director Anat Hoffman.
“It is absurd that we need to sue Israel Railways because their employees do not yet understand that the exclusion of women is against the law. For this reason, our lawsuit not only demands compensation for Maya Melitz, but also that Israel Railways train their employees about their obligation to conduct themselves in the same manner toward all passengers and to not discriminate against or exclude women.”
Hoffman is also director of Women of the Wall, an activist organization that advocates for the right of women to pray at the Western Wall with Torah scroll and prayer shawls, a custom opposed by the ultra-Orthodox.
In 2011, the Supreme Court ruled that enforced gender segregation on public buses was illegal, leading to several years of heated struggle by ultra-Orthodox extremists to preserve gender segregation on bus lines serving their communities.
In the past the Egged bus company had operated controversial segregated buses known as “Mehadrin buses” on certain intracity routes that pass through ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods.
Public buses contain notices informing riders that any attempt to force other passengers to move from the seat of their choice is a criminal offense (with the exception of specified spots for the disabled).
Speaking at a political rally last year, a prominent ultra-Orthodox rabbi compared Israel unfavorably to Nazi Germany over the Jewish state’s failure to recognize the importance of separating men and women in public.
Speaking at at the launch of the United Torah Judaism election campaign last March in the well-known Lederman Synagogue in Bnei Brak, Rabbi Aviezer Filtz, a prominent figure in UTJ and head of the religious seminary Yeshivat Toshia in the southern village of Tifrah, delivered a fiery speech on the importance of separate-gender seating on public buses.
“Start to organize, to ride separately,” he urged his listeners, then explained that the principle was so fundamental that even the Nazi concentration camps during the Holocaust obeyed this policy.
“Even the Nazis, may their names be erased, understood that there has to be separate housing for women and men, but here [in Israel] it’s forbidden!”