This is a guest post, by Tara Bognar, an attorney in Brooklyn and an alum of Yeshivat Hadar and Drisha. She has also written for the Berman Jewish Policy Archive Blog, Revolving Floor, and Tolerance.ca.
(Crossposted to Lilith.)
Segregating a certain class of people to the back of the bus has an intense resonance for anyone raised on stories of the Black civil rights struggle, Rosa Parks, and the irresistible narrative of how far we’ve come. So it’s not surprising that a story about the quasi-public New York City bus, the B110, where “the women is in the back. The men are in the front” [sic] has spread far and wide from the Columbia University newspaper that ‘broke’ the story.
Blogger Unpious describes the general tenor of the media response: “Like a school of hungry piranhas, the secular media seems to have discovered misogyny in the Chasidic world and they’re having themselves a feast.” He has a thoughtful critique on the dynamics of outside criticism on this insular community:
The outrage of outsiders won’t effect change largely because outsiders don’t seem to actually care about the plight of Chasidic women. Rather, they seem driven by a general distaste for all things Chasidic and, in this case, by the larger symbolism of back-of-the-bus discrimination. To them, Chasidic women are pawns in a larger struggle to root out discrimination everywhere, a worthy cause, no doubt, but one that Chasidic women, by and large, will not care for. Moreover, outsider outrage produces a defensive posture within the Chasidic community – on the part of both men and women – and speaking out against discriminatory practices, even by the tiny minority who might do so otherwise, becomes even more unlikely. I have yet to see those indignant outsiders bother to speak to actual living, breathing Chasidic women (or men, for that matter) to gauge how they feel about it.
However correct Unpious may be, and even if NYC’s response is unlikely to actually effect more progressive gender norms in the Chasidic community, it is offensive for the city to permit a public franchise to discriminate in this way.
NYC has various regulatory schemes that govern passenger services in the city. It’s not actually kosher to run a service that picks up passengers on the street for fares. Black livery cabs that take street hails (at least until the 5 Borough Taxi Plan takes effect) and unlicensed dollar vans run expensive risks. The company that runs the B110 bus, Private Transportation Corp, in contrast, pays the city a franchise-fee in proportion to revenue. In exchange, it can stop and pick up fares in what is essentially a protected market. But accepting the benefits of quasi-public status entails a responsibility to respect civil rights and public – not private – social norms.
Jacob Murmurstein, the president of Private Transportation Corp, should have known better. He owns at least two other bus services. Mazel Bus Co, which seems to be a completely private charter company, and Private One, which in 1997 took over an agreement (and reportedly dismissed Teamster Union employees in violation of their contract) with the New York Port Authority, and now operates as NY Airport Service, also as a New York City franchise. That bus service most certainly doesn’t segregate passengers by sex.
Simcha Felder, then city Councilman and currently Deputy Comptroller for Budget and Accounting, also should have known better. In 2009, he met with the “management of the bus line,” and they actually complained to him about the difficulties they were having enforcing sex segregation when the bus got crowded.
It seems Felder never got around to mentioning that meeting, or the sex segregation, to anybody. Not before the city’s apparently uneventful public review meeting on the renewal of Private Transportation’s franchise, this past June. And not to his “close ally” Mayor Bloomberg, who announced on Wednesday that the sex discrimination is “obviously not permitted.”
But Voz Iz Neias, an English language Orthodox Jewish blog, reported on that meeting in February 2009. Their story focused on the issue of overcrowding and asked passengers to be considerate about their parcels and to have their fares ready. Their story was not picked up by scores of media outlets worldwide.
(Ironically, this seems like a great illustration of Unpious’ contention that nobody is actually listening to the Chasidic community.)
As an elected official, Simcha Felder had a fairly wide berth to represent his constituency according to his Orthodox Jewish values. He has taken controversial public positions on a number of issues, including public funding for school buses for Jewish and Catholic religious schools, and he abstained from voting for Christine Quinn for Speaker because she is an out Lesbian. But he did take an oath of office swearing to uphold the constitution of the United States and the Constitution of New York.
If Felder has an explanation for why, as a Councilman and then as a Comptroller with responsibility for the city’s money management, his silent acquiescence in Private Transportation Corp’s abuse of its franchise was a principled stance rather than a betrayal of New Yorkers, male and female, Jewish and not, Chasidic and not, I would really like to hear it.
(In fact, the Franchise Concession Review Committee has sought extensions for both of Jacob Murmerstein’s franchise companies at least four times in the last ten years. Mayor Bloomberg signed those extensions into law in 2004, 2006, 2007, and 2008. His official quote at each signing: “The continuation of these franchises will maintain the City’s transportation network and promote the public interest, enhance the health, welfare and safety of the public and stimulate commerce by ensuring the continued availability of unsubsidized private bus service.”)