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In The Hot Seat

Eytan Kobre

Wednesday, December 28, 2011

A frum journalist recently told me that a major news agency had contacted her organization to ask for their views on the saga of the segregated buses in Israel. But, she continued, no one wanted to take the call, for fear of not knowing what to say. That story, along with the one about chareidi soldiers walking out of an army event featuring women’s singing, has filled the media for weeks now, even prompting Hillary Clinton to remark that when things like this happen in Israel, it reminds her of Iran.

Personally, I must admit it was actually heartening to hear Mrs. Clinton’s comment. Given the Obama administration’s apparent obliviousness to the looming threat of an Iranian nuclear bomb, anything that might remind the secretary of state of Iran’s existence can only be for the good. But I digress.

I told the journalist it was too bad they didn’t refer the call to me, because I could have brought a bit of clarity to a topic regarding which there’s lots of misunderstanding and misinformation. But since the call never did come, I share my thoughts here, and readers are more than welcome to share them with their high-placed friends in the media.

The following paragraphs will not address the halachic aspects of the story, on which I’m unqualified to opine. Nor will I speak on a practical level to the wisdom of seeking gender segregation on public transportation in Israel, which I’ll leave to social and political commentators closer to the scene. Instead, I’ll address a topic I actually know something about: herring. You see, the whole separate seating brouhaha (which, given the major media attention to this, might qualify for yet another “haha” after the first “haha”) is one big red herring, defined by the Oxford English Dictionary (third edition) as “information … intended to be misleading, or distracting from the actual question.”

So, as Lyndon Baines Johnson used to say, come let us reason together. Did you ever wonder why we read only of feminist activists, Rosa Parks wannabes, venturing forth bravely to sit among the men on a segregated bus, but never do we hear of a like-minded man, of which there are quite a few, attempting to integrate the women’s section as well? After all, so far as I know, the policy such buses are following is by no means addressed only to women; rather, it calls for both women and men to stay in their respective areas — hence my question.

Well, I recently posed this question to a young secular Jewish journalist, a freshly minted Columbia J School grad and aspiring Investigative Reporter, who happened upon the hapless riders of the B110 bus, which runs between Boro Park and Williamsburg and serves a largely chassidic clientele. As regular readers of this column know, he boarded that line one day along with a woman friend who promptly attempted to sit in the men’s section until she was requested, in apparently impolite terms, to repair to the women’s section at the back. She did so, and our intrepid reporter had his story.

I queried the reporter by e-mail on whether, for his part, he had tried to sit among the ladies in the back. After several such e-mails went unanswered and I asked that he at least acknowledge their receipt, he finally replied that he had not made such an attempt. When I asked why, he responded that “as a reporter I wanted to observe what happened rather than participate in it.” But perhaps sensing the weakness of that explanation, he added that he “also felt there was greater significance to members of any group being told to sit in the back of the bus.… because it is more inconvenient and because sitting in the back of the bus in the United States has historically signified second-class citizenship.”

To my follow-up question of whether he was suggesting that the women were asked to sit at the back of the B110 because they are second-class citizens, he hastened to reply that he was “not making any judgments about the role of women in the Satmar community.” But why, then, the exclusive focus on the goings-on at the front of the bus, when men were equally proscribed from sitting in the back?

I tried my best to get an answer to that simple question; but I never did get one, so permit me to offer my own. In part, our reporter friend spoke the truth when he said he focused on the back of the bus because that “has historically signified second-class citizenship” — but only in part. Consider: had he made his way to the back of the bus, only to be rebuffed as the rule would have required, that would have put the entire topic of gender segregation, on buses and everywhere else, in an entirely different light. It would have made it crystal clear that the issue is not one of demeaning women, but of fostering the atmosphere of moral propriety that gender segregation helps achieve.

But unfortunately, the reporter’s goal was not to identify and clarify the underlying issue in this story; to the contrary, it was to focus on the narrative of the “back of the bus,” specifically because of its power to stir emotions and cloud reason, since, to use his words, it “has historically signified second-class citizenship.” And that’s why we’ve never heard of fearless male reporters going where no man has gone before; for them to be “put in their place” by chareidi women simply doesn’t fit the preordained story line.

What difference does it really make that the motivation for gender separation is just that — separation — and not degradation of women? Doesn’t differentiation between the genders go starkly against the societal grain as well? Sure it does, but the difference is this: if the intent is to demean women, that’s the end of the discussion. There can be no justification for it, not only in the view of society at large, but in the Torah’s as well.

But if the intent is to foster a climate of morality — and, yes, protection of women — in keeping with the clear directives set forth in Even Ha’Ezer chapter 21 and the entirety of Hilchos Yichud, well then, we can now first begin a fruitful discussion with our secular contemporaries about the very real problems societies face and our respective solutions for them. When that discussion takes place in the State of Israel, where degradation of women in the vaunted precincts of academia and the military is epidemic, and where there have been many highly public moral scandals like the one that once caused such humiliation to Madame Secretary Clinton herself, it is Torah Jews who hold the high ground and their secular counterparts who are left grasping for answers. 

And when that discussion is over, the latter may say our approach is just too extreme for them and we may just have to agree to disagree, but one thing’s certain: if they’re at all intellectually honest, they’ll concede, however grudgingly, the wisdom of our tradition.

Ever wonder why we read only of Rosa Parks wannabes but never do we hear of a like-minded man attempting to integrate the women’s section?


TECHNOLOGY STRIKES AGAIN The New York Times reports on an “an intensifying discussion at hospitals and medical schools about … ‘distracted doctoring.

Hospitals have spent billions of dollars to “put computers, smartphones and other devices into the hands of medical staff for instant access to patient data, drug information and case studies,” but this has led to distraction even in the midst of providing critical care. Examples include “a neurosurgeon making personal calls during an operation, a nurse checking airfares during surgery, and a poll showing that half of technicians running bypass machines had admitted texting during [heart surgery].”

The article quotes Dr. Peter J. Papadakos, director of critical care at an upstate New York medical center, who has written about “electronic distraction”:

“You walk around the hospital, and what you see is not funny…. You justify carrying devices around the hospital to do medical records, but you can surf the Internet or do Facebook, and sometimes, for whatever reason, Facebook is more tempting. My gut feeling is lives are in danger.”

Presenters at a session on the dangers of technology at the recent Agudath Israel convention appealed to people to use Internet, BlackBerrys, and the like “only when necessary for business.” But as this article makes clear, the wiles of human nature make self-policing impossible, even when lives are at stake. What’s needed is for an outside party — one’s rav, for example — to help the individual determine what devices are truly necessary to get by in business. But that kind of intrusive oversight can’t be imposed from above. It can only work if, as Rav Avrohom Schorr shlita passionately declared at the Thursday evening plenary, we come to our rabbanim demanding they help us face the overwhelming challenges technology poses.

But let there be no illusions: the harms of technology go way beyond “distracted davening,” although that’s serious enough. As in the physical realm, so too in the spiritual one — in the onslaught of technology, lives are at stake.

The wiles of human nature make self-policing impossible, even when lives are at stake.

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