Something to make me smile – Ethiopian Women Bus Drivers

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.)


Danger in Israel

It’s not terror.  There have been more deaths in Israel due to traffic accidents than terror.  I had a friend who kept track of these things (I trust him because he is a science person) and he found that even in the worst days of the Second Intifada, there were still more people killed in traffic accidents than due to terror attacks.

This week a full bus collided with a truck stopped on the side of the road on Highway 1 in Israel.  Six people died, three of them were under 18.  It’s especially horrible because the driver of the bus had already had an accident similar to this one on the same road and was suspended from driving between cities for two years.

Israel is still safer than other places in our part of the world.  (For statistics and another opinion, see this article.)  I remember being in Sinai and our driver was driving on the wrong side of the road.  When asked why, he said that this part of the road was smoother, so there was no reason for him to do damage to his car if the road was simply better on the other side.  You could see miles ahead, but it was still a bit disconcerting because he drove like he was being chased.

In Egypt, a taxi driver was taking us to the airport in the wee hours of the morning.  He didn’t have his headlights on, so we mentioned that he might want to turn them on.  He said that having them off saved gas.  (If anyone can tell me that this is true, please comment.)  Besides, there were streetlamps on the highway, so nothing to worry about.

Here in Israel, there is a different driving culture than most Americans are used to – and thankfully it’s not quite like Sinai or Egypt.  Streets are noisy.  The horn is a method of communication with your fellow drivers.  It might say, “Hey! I’m right here (in case you are not using your mirrors).”  Perhaps, “Woohoo!  I’m going through the intersection.”  Taxi drivers often use it to say, “Hey! Wanna taxi?”  It is also used aggressively, “Go!!! The light changed .3 milliseconds ago!!!”  Or “what the hell is the matter with you?!?! Why are you making a 3-point turn in the middle of the road and blocking both directions of traffic?!?!”  This last one is more common than you might think.

A video of driving on the highway in Israel.  It’s not that bad.  Really!

My Israeli driving test

When I converted my US license to an Israeli license, I was required to take at least one lesson, but I didn’t have to take the written part of the test.  In those days, English-speakers told many horror stories of awful driving tests and almost no one passed on their first try.  Additionally, in Israel you can get an “automatic only” license or “manual transmission” license that allows you to drive both standards and automatics.  I went for the manual since I knew how to drive one.  But I was worried.

You take the test in the instructor’s car, which is why it’s good to have at least one lesson so that you can get used to the car.  I arrived at the testing facility and was going to be tested with another student in the car.  The person giving the test didn’t speak a lot of English, but we decided it would be fine.  I carefully pulled out of the parking lot, taking my time and generally being over-cautious.  We get on the road and the tester says “Left!”  I was in the outside lane so I changed lanes to the inside lane.  He started yelling, “Left! Left!” and then tried to grab the steering wheel.  I used a Karate Kid wax off motion to block and shouted back “Ok.  I got it!”  He meant the left turn lane.  So I made the turn.  “Pull over.  Stop the car.”  End of test.

I was sure I had failed.  It was Friday and I wouldn’t get results until the next week, so I spent the weekend wondering how many more lessons I would need, how much it would cost, hoping that I wouldn’t fail too many times and have to take the written portion in Hebrew.  The results came out and I passed.  I guess it was because in the chaos I still had control of the car.  I didn’t question it and I won’t now.  As far as I’m concerned it’s just another miracle of the many that take place in Israel.

And if you decide to visit Israel, don’t worry about terrorism, just be sure to look both ways before crossing the street.