A group of ultra-Orthodox Jewish millionaires is considering funding a private bus line in Israel that would enforce strict segregation between male and female passengers, an Israeli newspaper has reported.
The initiative follows public outrage at an incident where a secular Israeli woman refused to take a seat at the back of a public bus travelling to an ultra-Orthodox neighbourhood in Jerusalem at the request of a religious male passenger.
The backers of the proposed project are looking at providing bus transportation in Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) neighbourhoods in Jerusalem, Ashdod and Beit Shemesh as an alternative to Israel's Egged bus service, which insists that any gender segregation on its buses must be voluntary, Israel's daily Yediot Aharonot reported yesterday.
"The Haredi public doesn't own the entire state," Israel's Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger was quoted as saying. "I support segregation, but only when it is done willingly. On private lines in which all the passengers are eager for separation, and the dignity of women is maintained, then that is a welcome initiative."
Israel's Transport Ministry has yet to respond to the request, and it remains unclear if the initiative will be approved, as Israel's laws against discrimination demand that any provider of a public service must treat everybody equally, irrespective of gender, religion or ethnicity.
Tanya Rosenblit, a Jewish woman, was furious when she boarded a bus in Ashdod last week only to be told by a black-clad Haredi male passenger to sit at the back of the vehicle.
The man refused to allow the driver to close the doors while Ms Rosenblit stood her ground and the police were called. A policeman asked her to acquiesce with the man's request, but she refused and the man got off the bus.
Writing on the Israeli news site Ynet, she said: "Until yesterday, I was sure that I lived in a free country. I was certain that a person's dignity and freedom are supreme values in our diverse society. It's still hard for me to believe that in 2011, there are men who believe they must not sit behind a woman."
Israeli newspaper editors quickly drew comparisons with Rosa Parks, the black American woman who refused to sit at the back of a bus in Alabama in 1955, an act of defiance that was a defining moment in the civil rights movement.
Many Israelis have lashed out in recent weeks at what they view as efforts by particularly pious Haredim to impose a more modest and religiously observant lifestyle on the rest of the population and in its own communities.
During a recent festival, Haredi residents erected a screen in a Jerusalem neighbourhood forcing women and men to walk on opposite sides of the street. And last week, ultra-Orthodoix men tried to prevent women from voting in a local election by screaming abuse at them.