'Sinful' city buses stoned by ultra-Orthodox Jews

It is an all too familiar scene: the Israeli bus, travelling near predominantly Palestinian East Jerusalem, is pelted with stones that smash windows and startle passengers. Except this time the stone-throwers are not Arabs but Jews. The violence is part of an unholy war in which strident elements of the ultra-Orthodox community in Mea Shearim are trying to force Israel's leading bus company – and, by extension, Israeli society – to defer to their strict religious teachings and sensibilities.

Although Israel defines itself as a Jewish state, what that means in practice is subject to dispute, with religious and secular Jews constantly tugging for greater clout in shaping the character of the country. The latest battle is over demands that buses segregate men and women in accordance with strict Jewish law on a line connecting the ultra-Orthodox stronghold of Mea Shearim in Jerusalem with the Western Wall. In the view of some ultra-Orthodox Jews, segregated seating, with women entering separately through the rear door and sitting at the back, is vital to uphold their stringent traditions stipulating modesty and prohibiting physical contact with members of the opposite sex.

Secularists say the push for sanctity on the buses is part of a larger effort to transform Jerusalem into a kind of Tehran. The violence is a major test for Jerusalem's new Mayor, Nir Barkat, who rode to power last year on the votes of secular residents worried over growing ultra-Orthodox influence.

Menachem Kenig, head of a committee pressing for segregated buses, says Israel's leading bus company, Egged, is in effect forcing religious people to sin. "The one place where men and women are forced to be together is on the bus," he says. "People are crowded in, men and women push up against each other. There are sudden stops and sharp turns and men fall on the women. This really angers us, it is a violation of the concept of modesty that is at the basis of the ultra-orthodox community."

But Laura Wharton, a secularist member of the Jerusalem city council, says the attempt to force a new segregated bus line is "outrageous and extremist", adding: "It is humiliating to be sent to the back of the bus."

Egged temporarily suspended service on the disputed line after stone attacks on several buses last week. A Mea Shearim store-owner said: "According to the Jewish religion, it is forbidden to damage property. These people are causing shame to the ultra-Orthodox community, which is made up of very delicate people. It is true that Egged does not give good service to the ultra-Orthodox but you don't solve this through ugly violence."

Mr Kenig said the violence was caused by the Transport Ministry's decision to end a free segregated service his committee had launched. He termed the stone-throwing "very awful" but predicted there could be more violence. Egged, which has a monopoly on bus services in Jerusalem, says it will not change the disputed line into a segregated one because secular passengers use it too. It runs segregated lines where nearly all passengers are ultra-Orthodox, a spokesman said.

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