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Insider Activist

January-February 2010

Jerusalem city councilor Laura Wharton

Jerusalem city councilor Laura Wharton

Courtesy of Laura Wharton

Laura Wharton ’83 refused to sit in the back of the bus. One Sunday morning this past August, on what she called a “Rosa Parks Day,” the Jerusalem city councilor led 50 activists in demonstrating against the city’s gender-segregated bus lines. 

Even in the holiest of cities, the secular deserve rights, too—at least according to American-born Wharton. Though not the only one of its kind, the protest she led against mehadrin buses (where women sit in the rear to respect strict adherents of Orthodox Judaism) owes its origin to her belief in this principle. Since winning a seat on Jerusalem’s 30-seat city council in November 2008, Wharton has been striving to make the city more accessible and egalitarian for all its citizens. “I’m not religious, but I’m not anti-religious either,” she says. “I want to guarantee people’s rights to religious freedom.”

Growing up Jewish in New Jersey, she became fascinated by Israel and “the re-formation of a state out of nowhere, based on a bunch of immigrants, beginning at the turn of the century.” After college, she packed her bags and headed to the historic homeland of Judaism, where she has lived on a kibbutz, done a stint in the army, and worked in nongovernmental organizations. When she’s not spending evenings at city hall, she is busy raising two children—Timna, 15, and Gilad, 11—as well as trying to finish her doctorate in political science at Hebrew University. 

A government concentrator in college, Wharton always had a keen interest in politics, but says she decided to run for office to “try to change things from within, instead of being in an organization that’s outside and trying to press for things.”

Just finishing her first year of a five-year term, Wharton is somewhat of an anomaly in Jerusalem politics, which she says are often dominated by followers of Haredi Judaism, commonly called the ultra-Orthodox. On a municipal body where half the officials represent religious parties, she stands out as a secular member and one of three representatives of Meretz, a left-leaning peace party known for its support of a two-state solution with Palestine and its progressive agenda.  

Meretz’s emphasis on social issues proved a good fit for Wharton, who says she’s concentrated thus far in her term on “caring for the underprivileged or people who need special assistance.” She traces some of her activism to her days on the cabinet of the Phillips Brooks House Association, where she volunteered in prison education. “I think that was really important in my focusing on problems that existed and the fact that there are things a person can do to try to help,” she says.

 Now she is devoting her energies to public health and rights for the elderly and disabled. “I hope I can do a lot to make Jerusalem more accessible, because it’s a pretty hard city for anyone, let alone a person with a physical disability,” she explains. “I also hope I can help see to it that the resources are divided more fairly among the various residents of all sorts, whether they are ultra-Orthodox or not religious or Muslim or Christian.”

In late October, the Israeli Transportation Ministry issued a report declaring enforcement of sex-segregated buses illeg-al, though voluntary separation was not deemed unlawful; it’s still unclear what will happen with the mehadrin buses. Still, Wharton counts it as a small victory for a Jerusalem that she hopes will become “a freer, more open, and more declaredly pluralistic city,” one that is more navigable for all its citizens—no matter their ability, age, religion or gender.