Friday, December 22, 2006

Bullies on the Bus

I have been reading responses throughout the Jewish blogosphere to the vile and cowardly attack that Miriam Shear suffered on the No. 2 bus line in Jerusalem several weeks ago, and I find some of the responses almost as horrifying as the report of the attack itself.

I strongly object to the use of modesty as the reason why four bullies ganged up on Ms. Shear and beat, kicked and spat on her when she refused an inappropriate demand to move to the back of the bus. I also object to the appalling tendency I have noticed in several blogs’ comment sections to blame the victim by saying such things as: Well, she was looking for a fight and she got one, or: She only sat where she did in order to make a statement, or: She should have moved to the back of the bus in order to avoid conflict, because that is how truly modest people behave.

In other words, they say, Ms. Shear deserved what she got because she didn’t know her place. She should have given in to the bullies.

To those who truly believe that, I have the following challenge. Ask yourselves honestly: What would you do if someone were to beat up your mother, sister, wife or daughter on a public bus?

You would punch their lights out and ask questions later.

Modesty does not mean being a doormat. Nor does it mean ganging up on other people and beating and kicking them in order to make a point. Modest people mind their own business and do not bully others. So let’s not fool ourselves. The attack on Ms. Shear had nothing at all to do with modesty and everything to do with power, control and defending turf.

The Hebrew word mehader comes from the word hadar, which means “beauty” or “splendor.” The literal meaning of the word “mehader” is “one who beautifies.” It is also related to the phrase hiddur mitzvah—the act of putting special effort into the fulfillment of a particular commandment. Similarly, the word “mehader” refers to a person who is meticulous in observing the commandments. Its plural form, mehadrin, is often used to describe any product or service, such as the supervision of kosher food or the quality of a ritual object, that conforms to the highest standards of Jewish law. I understand that the proper word is actually “la-mehadrin”—“for the mehadrin”—meaning that the product or service is specifically meant for meticulously observant people. Over the past several years, the prefix has been dropped, and the word “mehadrin” now describes the product or service itself rather than its intended consumers.

When applied to public transportation, the word “mehadrin” refers to sex-segregated buses. To my mind, that is a misnomer. I see nothing beautiful or splendid about seeking to impose an unnecessary and invasive restriction upon an unwilling population. Jewish law does not require separate seating on public transportation. Even if it did, there is no excuse for the ugly, arrogant and brutal behavior of the bullies who attacked Ms. Shear.

A campaign to segregate Egged's 1 and 2 bus lines in Jerusalem has been going on for years, and it is obvious that the supposed advocates of modesty are not above using deception in order to get what they want. I remember seeing, approximately eight years ago, photocopied signs taped to bus stops at the beginning of the route just outside the Old City stating that the 1 and 2 lines now required separate seating. The sign-makers had photocopied the seal of a well-known Haredi rabbinical court—a familiar image that can be lifted easily from most products available in local supermarkets, from canned fruit to laundry detergent—onto the signs in an attempt to give them legitimacy and authority. (Fortunately the 38 line, the minibus that travels between the Old City and the main part of downtown, appears to have escaped this nonsense so far.)

At that same time, stickers began to appear on articulated buses, stating that these vehicles should be sex-segregated, with men in the front and women in the back, citing a phrase from Tractate Berakhot 61a of the Babylonian Talmud: “Aharei ari ve-lo aharei isha” (“It is better to walk behind a lion than behind a woman”). The stickers were red and white, like other official Egged stickers, though of course Egged had nothing to do with their production or distribution. The campaign also includes outright lies. Only several weeks ago I saw large posters in the Geula neighborhood exulting that lines 1 and 2 are “now mehadrin,” when in fact they do not require separate seating.

Does anyone remember Naomi Ragen's story about what happened to her several years ago on a bus to Jerusalem’s Ramot neighborhood? A man demanded that she move to the back of the bus, and when she refused, he abused her verbally until he reached his stop. The driver did nothing.

It appears that things have only gotten worse since then.

I would feel more comfortable if the bus bullies and their sympathizers simply told the truth. They couldn’t care less about modesty. What they care about is power, and their actions—bullying, lies and deception—show that they don’t care very much about how they get it. In order to get the control they crave, they violate the very ethics that they claim to value, and they desecrate the very name of the God Whose law they claim to uphold.

Mehadrin, indeed.

Beauty? Splendor? Show me where.

(Interested readers can read about my own encounters with bus bullying here, here and here.)

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