In some ways, Israel is quite progressive in gender equality. And in many other ways, Israel is still in the Dark Ages.
Bus driver was one of those jobs in Israel that was always done by a man. Ethnicity didn’t seem to matter, but it was always a man. I don’t know if it’s related, but bus drivers are notoriously aggressive drivers. I was once on a bus – a double-length bus with an accordion middle junction – on a two-lane street. The car ahead of this bus was annoying the driver and in spite of the bumper-to-bumper traffic, the bus somehow passed the car. There may have been some popping up on the curb and shouting back and forth, but I cannot really explain how it was physically possible for a double-length bus filled with people to maneuver in traffic like a two-seat roadster.
A few years ago, I noticed that things were starting to change. I saw more Arab drivers, still men though. And then I saw a woman driver. And then I noticed more women drivers, even Arab women drivers. Women drivers are still pretty rare to see, but I get very happy when I see them. Is our sexist country finally starting to change a little bit?
I have to say that I’m happiest when I see an Ethiopian woman driver.
When you examine the social strata of Israel, I think the group with the most obstacles facing them is Ethiopian women.
They face blatant racism. There are plenty of rabbis in the rabbanut (the religious authority in Israel) who do not accept Ethiopians as properly Jewish and require that they go through a formal, Orthodox conversion.
The Ethiopian struggle to come to Israel is awe-inspiring. Some were brought in emergency airlifts having never seen a plane before. Some walked the whole way facing hunger, thirst, natural dangers, and human dangers. They faced unimaginable odds and obstacles at every turn. And many thousands died along the way.
Some Ethiopians face a cultural gap – in some cases a chasm as wide as the Grand Canyon. Can you imagine living in an African village, more or less self-sufficient in your community, and then you arrive in a place that is technologically a hundred years more advanced? Once you didn’t need to read and write, and then suddenly everyone is asking you to fill out a form in a foreign language?
It’s a sad fact that some older Ethiopian men haven’t adjusted to life in Israel very well. They come to Israel and because they don’t succeed in society, they feel emasculated. And their frustration gets taken out on their families, especially wives.
But then you see her, a petite Ethiopian woman – the steering wheel of the bus is nearly the entire length of her arm – and she’s maneuvering this monster vehicle in the crazy traffic of rush hour Jerusalem and dealing with impatient, hot, frustrated passengers.
Imagine a two-lane road with cars parked with two wheels on the sidewalk (yep, that’s legal parking) along both sides and both lanes are bumper-to-bumper. Now you have some idiot who parked their car badly and it’s sticking out in the street blocking part of the lane. You’re the bus driver who has to get this huge vehicle through an even smaller space than usual.
It just so happened that in the opposite lane was a bus from a bus-driving school with an instructor and a student driver. As our Ethiopian woman driver perfectly executed the right moves to get the bus through the narrow gap left to her without touching any other cars, she got cheers and fist pumps from the instructor and student in the other bus and a murmur of approval from the passengers who could see what was going on.
And in that moment, she was on top based on her own skill, her own merits, and her own grit in getting things done. It was a beautiful thing to see!
(And I was much more forgiving when she nearly missed my stop, which was right after this little drama.)