Discrimination on a quasi-public bus

The New York World, a Columbia Journalism School publication, had a big story last week about how a Brooklyn bus line segregates its passengers according to sex. It was picked up by the New York Times the next day:

It does not take long to recognize that the B110 bus in Brooklyn is not like others in the city.

The exterior colors are different: red, white and blue. The price for a single ride is the same, $2.50, but MetroCards are not accepted. The bus does not run Friday night or most of Saturday.

But the most obvious sign that the B110 is different was demonstrated Wednesday by Gitty Green, a 30-year-old mother who boarded the bus on Wednesday with her three children and a stroller and headed straight to the back.

As her two older sons perched on the seats behind her, she looked ahead at the men seated in front, mostly Hasidic Jews in wide-brimmed hats, and said, because her religion dictates the separation of the sexes, she never wondered what it would be like to sit with them.

“It’s such a normal thing for us that women and men are separate,” she said. “Most of the ladies go to the back.”

The B110 bus, which runs between Williamsburg and Borough Park, has been run by Private Transportation Corporation since 1973, under a franchise with the city. And to many in the area, the bus’s tradition of separation comes with little surprise or indignation.

Both The New York World story and the New York Times story had some holes but I found that reading them together was the most helpful. At least as far as the law is concerned. The issue of whether this is a public or private bus line is really everything in a story such as this. But it was hard to understand some of the particulars. Here The New York World was helpful:

The city’s Franchise and Concession Review Committee defines a franchise on its website as “the right to occupy or to use the City’s inalienable property, such as streets or parks, for a public service, e.g., transportation.”

The agreement goes back to at least 1973, and last year the franchise paid the city $22,814 to operate the route, according to the New York City Department of Transportation. According to the news site Vos Iz Neias?, which serves the Orthodox Jewish community in New York City and elsewhere, the bus company has a board of consulting rabbis, which decreed that male passengers should ride in the front of the bus and female passengers in the back.

The New York Times, though, quoted Mayor Michael Bloomberg calling it a public bus and saying that if you wanted to do what you want with a bus, rent one. So I’m not entirely sure how the bus company has been able to operate for 40 years with a board of rabbis making decisions. If it’s a public bus, why would you let it be owned and operated by private entities? I don’t quite get it. The Times says that even thought it’s private, the route was awarded via a public process and a spokesman says the bus can’t discriminate and is supposed to be available for public use.

I also was deeply curious about the religious basis for the segregation. Here, I thought The New York World did slightly better. Although I still had some questions:

On the morning of October 12, Melissa Franchy boarded the B110 bus in Brooklyn and sat down near the front. For a few minutes she was left in silence, although the other passengers gave her a noticeably wide berth. But as the bus began to fill up, the men told her that she had to get up. Move to the back, they insisted.

They were Orthodox Jews with full beards, sidecurls and long black coats, who told her that she was riding a “private bus” and a “Jewish bus.” When she asked why she had to move, a man scolded her.

“If God makes a rule, you don’t ask ‘Why make the rule?’” he told Franchy, who rode the bus at the invitation of a New York World reporter. She then moved to the back where the other women were sitting. The driver did not intervene in the incident.

The B110 bus travels between Williamsburg and Borough Park in Brooklyn. It is open to the public, and has a route number and tall blue bus stop signs like any other city bus. But the B110 operates according to its own distinct rules. The bus line is run by a private company and serves the Hasidic communities of the two neighborhoods. To avoid physical contact between members of opposite sexes that is prohibited by Hasidic tradition, men sit in the front of the bus and women sit in the back.

A little more information but it sounds like a great opportunity to explain to readers much more. How important is this rule? How inviolable? Historically how has this rule been handled in other public accommodation settings? And, of course, what are the implications of permitting such discrimination on religious grounds — as has, apparently, been the case for at least four decades? Are there other examples of religious groups being able to discriminate publicly on religious grounds? I guess the closest thing we’ve seen in recent years has been the refusal by certain Muslim taxi cab drivers to transport people or items they find objectionable. How have those cases been resolved? Do anti-sharia activists also work against franchises such as the one in question? Do those who say anti-sharia activists are bigoted loonies have anything to say about carve-outs such as the Brooklyn bus line?

Interesting stories — and great job breaking the story, The New York World — and I look forward to some follow-ups.

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  • Mike O.

    I found a link to this New York Post article via this Failed Messiah blog post. The Post article is quite brief, mentioning the New York World article and what happened when the Post’s two female reporters got on that same bus. They were told the front of the bus was reserved for men but not told to move to the back of the bus.

  • sari

    As a rule, Jewish law prohibits people of the opposite gender from touching, partly to maintain ritual purity and partly to prevent people who shouldn’t be involved from becoming involved. Exceptions are for people who are married to each other, children below a certain age, and people who are closely related (parents, their siblings, children, and–in some quarters–grandchildren). My husband, for instance, was known at the kids’ elementary as “the man who doesn’t shake hands with women.” He wasn’t rude about it, and he has no problem sitting next to a woman, but some people are more stringent in their observance and others are less.

    There have been rulings by major Orthodox rabbinic bodies regarding public transit, but the Hasidim recognize only their own leaders (Rebbes, and rabbis). Anyone who rides the NYC subways will see observant (Orthodox) and Hasidische Jews who either sit by people of the opposite sex or choose to move. Now that the bus has been brought to the public’s attention, I would expect a lawsuit to follow, something similar to that leveled at the Satmar-run public school for their disabled Kiryat Joel.

    It might have helped if the journalist had provided a little background on the Hasidim, their motivations (reasons for observance) and history, rather than simply highlight the oddities of their dress and the extreme separation between the genders. Many, if not most, are descendents of people who were part of a huge post-Holocaust migration. For obvious reasons, they have little desire to interact with non-Jews or to allow secular authority dictate how they live.

  • http://abitmoredetail.wordpress.com Randy McDonald

    The sex-segregation of seating on buses in response to conservative Jewish sentiment is something that has been a much more prominent issue in Israel.

    Links? This 2006 Ha’aretz article (http://www.haaretz.com/woman-beaten-on-j-lem-bus-for-refusing-to-move-to-rear-seat-1.207251) describes how one woman was beaten by Hasidim for refusing to move to the back of one bus. This 2010 article from the _Forward_ (http://www.forward.com/articles/128820/) describes one journalist’s experience, this _Salon_ article also from 2010 (http://open.salon.com/blog/judy_mandelbaum/2010/03/14/sex-segregated_buses_split_israel_along_religious_divide) places sex-segregated bus lines in the context of Israel’s internal religious divisions, and _Ha’aretz_ from this year (http://www.haaretz.com/news/national/high-court-gender-segregation-legal-on-israeli-buses-but-only-with-passenger-consent-1.335567) notes the High Court ruling state that all sex-segregation has to be voluntary, that women can’t be forced to the back of the bus.

    The libertarian Eugene Volokh, in a 2008 post on the subject (http://volokh.com/posts/1200440362.shtml), wasn’t inclined to be overconcerned about the issue, on the grounds that it represents a relatively minor issue for women on some bus routes in the context of a society where women enjoy something approaching equality with men. He did think, though, that it was suspicious that it was always the _women_ who were in the back of the bus. The High Court’s mention in its 2011 ruling of Rosa Parks is apropos.

    (Misogyny colours too much.)

  • http://www.YossiGestetner.com Yossi Gestetner

    The NY Post wrote Wednesday that no one told its reporter “she had to move to the back” nor did the driver in the NY World reporter incident take a stand one way or another. Additionally, the NYT in its own report writes that “no male passengers sitting at the front of the bus explicitly told a female reporter to move, but several riders said women did not belong there.” All three instances written by reporters show that this policy is not forced on by the company nor is it forced by those riding. Instead, it is a self imposed and self accepted policy by the 99% members riding this route who at times perhaps mention it to others riding.

    For those who wonder why the riders live by this rule? Well, the high success rate of marriages in the Orthodox Jewish/Hasidic community is largely due to men and women intermingling less, and as such a there is reduced enticement for people to wonder outside their marriage vows.

    As for the sign on the bus encouraging men and women to sit separately: It is passengers who decided to do so, and since 99% using this route don’t mind this type of seating, it indeed does not bother the owner or the drivers that the sign is up there.

  • http://www.facebook.com/aemoreira81 Adam

    From what I read in the article, she was requested to go to the back by customers—not the driver. That’s a key distinction…and quite frankly, this story is being blown a bit out of proportion.

    BTW, I am not Jewish.

  • Mike O.

    quite frankly, this story is being blown a bit out of proportion.

    I’m going to disagree with this. There have only been a relatively small number of articles written on the story so far. It may still explode but it hasn’t yet.

    Plus no matter your feelings or lack there of on the subject, it’s easy to see why the story would have appeal for both journalists and readers. You’ve got your gender clash and your culture clash. You’ve got input from the mayor. It came just a few weeks after this story. And any story where a woman is being told she has to sit in the back of the bus is going to eventually draw some parallels.

  • sari

    Mike O., The signs have parallels in signs posted in Mea Sharim and B’nei Brak, haredi (ultraorthodox) and Hasidic enclaves in Israel. I read the linked article, which was clearly antagonistic to the Hasidim -and- got its facts wrong when it said:

    “The signs do not indicate their author, but sources said that they are part of a campaign by a rabbinical group that has printed other “modesty” decrees, including one in June demanding that women not wear tank tops.

    Many Hasidic women ignored that fashion advice — but the pedestrian etiquette warning appears to have more weight.”

    No way any Hasidic woman would be caught dead in a tank top, even in the privacy of her own home, any more than she’d wear pants or appear in public with her hair uncovered. The laws of modesty address behavior and attire for both men and women.

    Again, writers of such articles should be knowledgeable as to community standards for any religious group before making a statement like the one above.

  • Mike

    If this has been going on for 40 years, why are journalists only now reporting it? It’s a legitimate story that should have been brought to the public’s attention, uh, 39 years ago!

  • Will

    Sari: The Talmud’s passage warning against “a foolish pietist, a female Pharisee, a cunning rogue, and the seven plagues of the Pharisees” characterizes the “foolish pietist” as someone who will not rescue a drowning woman because he would have to touch her. I think pikuakh nefesh definitely qualifies as another “exception”.

  • sari

    Of course, Will. But what do tank tops or segregated buses have to do with pikuach nefesh (saving a soul)? The issue is whether the Hasidim have the right to impose stringencies on the public that they’ve already imposed on themselves.

  • Jeffrey

    It is curious how this story went so long without being told. My guess is that the NYC press gets religion in the sense of tolerating the closedness of the Hasidim and Ultraorthodox until it brushes up against government action,like in Kiryas Joel.

    It’s hard to imagine such a blaze reaction to a Muslim-run bus where segregation of sexes took place. I can already hear the screams of shariah.

  • http://ingles.homeunix.net/ Ray Ingles

    Are there other examples of religious groups being able to discriminate publicly on religious grounds?

    Well, it reminded me a little of this incident: http://www.sltrib.com/ci_12811907

  • http://!)! Passing By

    The Times article answered one of my questions: the women ride in back so the men don’t look at them. It would have been helpful to us outlanders to state explicitly that this is the bus on that route, but at least there was a clue to in the Times.

    But neither article answered my main question: why this is a public bus? Why not get your own bus and run your own route, as suggested? Why pay the franchise fee? Let the city run their own route with their own rules.

    The New York World will be keeping a close eye on the practices aboard the B110 bus and the city’s response – and we will let you know when we hear more.

    So who’s keeping an eye on the New York World? Certainly not their faculty sponsors, who don’t seem to have taught their students that self-important drivel is repulsive to lots of folks, or that a phase like “when we hear more” is reminiscent of a gossip column, not serious reporting.

  • Mike O.

    Sari, I apologize, When I wrote about parallels I was trying to allude to a parallel between this story and Rosa Parks, but I was stupdendously unclear since I only referenced the former without referencing the latter.

  • sari

    No problem, Mike. The situations are similar in those instances when non-Hasidic women board the bus, but dissimilar in that this is, for the most part, self-segregation by two genders that adhere to the same belief system, not government sponsored racism. Likewise, parallels exist between the situation in Israel and here, but it is unlikely that a noncompliant woman’s actions will lead to violence in NYC. Why? Such behavior will not be tolerated in the States, period.

    I had the strong impression that the journalist boarded the bus will full knowledge that she’d be stirring the pot. It might have been interesting to have had a man board, especially one conversant in Yiddish, to interview the men and observe their conversations.

  • dalea

    Are Hasids considered to be part of the Orthodox movement or as an independent movement outside of Orthodox Judaism? It seems like much of the coverage I have seen on Hasids has treated them as being outside of the Orthodox.

  • sari

    Dalea #16. There are no Orthodox or Hasidic movements per se, nothing akin to many Christian denominations, but one can say that being Orthodox is part of being Hasidic, though not the other way around. Hasidism is more rooted in Jewish mysticism, a response to pogroms that devastated the Ukrainian communities in the 1600′s and the divide which grew between the common, unschooled Jew and Jewish scholars. Hasidim group around a Rebbe, a spiritual leader who is believed to have a direct conduit to the A-Mighty and who is consulted about every aspect of his Hasidims’ lives. Most Hasidic groups have distinctive dress and customs which immediately identify affiliation.

    In the past 20-30 years, the two orientations have moved closer together, with Orthodox communities striving towards more stringent and meaningful observance, stringencies which are not required but have been adopted as community standards. I think a lot of this is due to backlash against what is perceived as an increasingly immoral mainstream culture -and- the rapid assimilation of less observant Jews into the secular mainstream, through apathy, ignorance of their faith tradition, and/or intermarriage.


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