July 31, 1997
Back of the Bus
Marlene Adler Marks
True story. Last week at the Westside Pavilion, just
outside Nordstrom, six women, dressed in the garb of
Islam, were standing by the mall's ATM. Four wore
colorful scarves, exposing the face and a bit of hair; two
were completely in black, with only small slits, 1 inch by
4 inches, revealing huge, dark eyes. From a distance, the
human form disguised, they looked like a gathering of
I needed to use the bank machine, but the women did
not move. They blocked my way. I was irritated. They
stood around, yakking in an Arab dialect I couldn't
understand. In a flash, a whole feminist discourse popped
into my head; I split into two, debating with myself about
the rights of women under religious totalitarian societies.
Better come back later, when they're gone.
As I walked away, I heard the familiar metallic tinkle
of nervous female giggling. I looked back over my
shoulder. The older of the women -- the grandmother? --
was clearly trying to make a decision.
"Can I help you?" I said, walking up to them. They fell
on me like a sister. Grandma forced a Visa Gold Card into
my hand. "Machine," she said. She wanted to take $5,000
out of her account. Impossible, I know. I went through
the motions of making a withdrawal anyway; she adroitly
entered her PIN number. The machine rejected her
request. We repeated the process three times -- seven
women trying to conduct business. My shoulders relaxed.
Though we failed in the attempt, we were happy in the
effort. Behind the slit, a young girl's eyes were bright.
"Bye," the women said, gaily. I wondered who among
us was liberated.
No doubt, you've heard: In Israel, women are moving
to the back of the bus. We're not so different from
fundamentalist Arab states after all. The policy, approved
last week by the Israeli Cabinet, calls for separate
entrances and seating for women in the rear of Egged
and Dan buses to B'nai Brak. Unless overturned by the
Supreme Court, it would immediately apply only to
transit lines through observant communities. But who
knows where it will end: Separate seating on El Al?
Of course, we are aghast, we American Jewish liberals.
We speak out, in the name of Rosa Parks, and against Jim
Crow. A shiver goes through those of us who remember
Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. We're heading backward, into
But even as we are preparing to fight this bus policy,
as part of the larger battle on behalf of religious
pluralism in Israel, I detect a tonal difference among
those who are battling the political forces of extreme
Orthodoxy. I hear anger, yes, but also compassion, a
declaration of understanding that the enemy is not the
woman in veil or the sheitel. It is the dogmatic mind that
abuses her in its pursuit for power.
I have my theories on why this sensitivity is emerging
The fact is that Jewish liberalism, feminist or
otherwise, has failed to take itself, and the issue of
religious expression in Israel, seriously. It
underestimated both the anti-Semitism on the left and
the forces of theocracy on the right. Jewish liberals were
comfortable, even arrogant, for too long, and the
important work of coalition building with moderate
religious forces in Israel was not done. The Who is a Jew?
battle over religious conversions has pit Reform and
Conservative movements against the triumphant haredi.
These movements are coming alive late in the game
Let one case make the point: For a decade, Women at
the Wall has fought the lonely battle for rights of
religious access in Israel. Painted as an obscure group of
fringe feminists, Women at the Wall got little organized
support in its lawsuit demanding the right to pray at the
site of the ancient temple. (The noted exception is ARZA,
the Reform Zionist organization.) As it became clear that
the women worshipers were not bra-burning radicals but
serious religious adherents, insisting on their equal rights,
liberal Jewish groups in America were even more at a
loss to see the relevance of their plea.
The American liberal community could have been
making common cause with religious Israelis for years
but did not. Only this past spring did it awaken to the
real danger to civil liberties in Israel, when Conservative
Jewish men and women were accosted on Shavuot while
trying to hold religious services at the old Temple site.
In conversations and in news reports last week with
liberal Jewish activists, I detected a new respect for
Israeli Orthodox women, even to the point of
"understanding"why some may want separation. This
makes political sense: in fightingto get the bus policy
overturned, American Jewish groups must get the
approval of women in a community they have long
In the ongoing war for Israel, you can't tell a friend or
foe by sheitel or veil. Those of us who seek to create a
tolerant Israel are going to have to practice tolerance
Marlene Adler Marks is editor-at-large of The
Jewish Journal. Her e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
All rights reserved by author.