JERUSALEM — One of Israel's chief rabbis ventured into the divisive question of gender segregation on Monday, saying separate seating for men and women on buses and similar practices adopted by some devout Jews are not required by Jewish law.
Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar spoke after U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton was quoted by Israeli media as expressing shock over the segregated buses and other practices of radicalized religious activists.
In an interview with the ultra-Orthodox Kol Brama radio station, Amar was critical of these relatively new and controversial practices.
"People who do it do it for their own sakes," he said of the segregated buses. "Certain people want to delineate a fence, perhaps because they saw a need for it. But it's not Jewish law."
Radical activists have segregated buses, cowed advertisers into removing images of women from posters on the streets of cities with large ultra-Orthodox Jewish populations, shunted women onto separate sidewalks and walked out of military events where women have sung. Some women have taken to dressing head-to-toe, in the fashion of Islamist fundamentalists, a practice that Amar also said was elective.
These ultra-devout are on a campaign to keep secular values from breaching the walls of their insular community. But Israel's secular majority is aghast at what they call on assault on the country's human rights.
Amar is the spiritual leader of Jews of Sephardic – or Middle Eastern and North African – descent. Israel has a second chief rabbi who serves the Ashkenazi, or European-descended Jewish population.
With his comments, he became the most senior religious leader to step into an contentious debate over the nature of Israeli society, where ultra-Orthodox extremists have increasingly tried to impose their values on mainstream society. Ultra-Orthodox make up some 9 percent of Israel's 5.9 million-strong Jewish population, which is overwhelmingly secular.
Clinton caused a furor in some circles over remarks she reportedly made in a closed-door session over the weekend expressing concerns over Israel's democracy. According to Israeli media, Clinton was also appalled by the segregation of women by some elements in the ultra-Orthodox community.
Israel's Supreme Court has outlawed gender segregation on buses and sidewalks, but some transit routes and public spaces remain segregated in practice.
Amar said Clinton's knowledge of the situation was incomplete.
"If she were to learn from the right people ... she would know that the people of Israel respect women and turn them into veritable queens and princesses," he said.