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Israel's 'Rosa Parks' refuses to take back seat

By Izzy Lemberg and Kevin Flower, CNN
December 19, 2011 -- Updated 1331 GMT (2131 HKT)
A crowd of ultra-orthodox men gather at a bus stop while Tanya Rosenblit refuses to sit in the back of the bus.
A crowd of ultra-orthodox men gather at a bus stop while Tanya Rosenblit refuses to sit in the back of the bus.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Women sit in the back portion of the bus because ultra-Orthodox avoid mingling of sexes
  • Tanya Rosenblit was first passenger that morning on bus and took a seat behind the driver
  • Rosenblit: 'I live in an Israeli democracy, people cannot tell me where to sit on a bus'
  • Supreme Court: Involuntary separation between sexes on public buses against the law

Jerusalem (CNN) -- When Tanya Rosenblit boarded an inter-city bus bound for Jerusalem from her native Ashdod Friday morning, she did not anticipate the storm it would spark within Israel.

The public bus she boarded normally carries ultra-Orthodox passengers and travels to an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood in Jerusalem.

As a matter of custom women sit in the back portion of the bus, because the ultra-Orthodox avoid mingling of the sexes according to their beliefs. She was the first passenger that morning on the bus and took a seat behind the driver. As the bus took on more passengers along its route, an ultra-orthodox man demanded she should sit in the back of the bus as is the custom on that route.

"I heard him call me 'Shikse,'" Rosenblit wrote on her Facebook page, referencing a Yiddish term for a non-Jewish woman. "He demanded I sit in the back of the bus, because Jewish men couldn't sit behind women (!!!). I refused."

"This is my home town of Ashdod, I live in an Israeli democracy, people cannot tell me where to sit on a bus."

An argument ensued and ultimately the bus driver called the police to intervene, but not before a crowd of black-clad ultra-orthodox men had gathered outside the bus.

"I was starting to get scared, to tell you the truth," Rosenblit recalled. "There were like 20 of them, all wearing black. Most of them were just curious, but they were definitely on his side."

Rosenblit snapped throughout this disruption, and said she was comfortable knowing that Israeli law was on her side.

I oppose this unequivocally. I believe we must not allow margins groups to break our common denominator and we must keep our public spaces open and safe for all of our citizens.
Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu

In a case brought by an Israeli woman earlier this year, the country's Supreme Court ruled that involuntary separation between the sexes on public buses was against the law.

The responding police officer tried to talk to everyone and calm things down. Rosenblit said he asked if she was willing to show respect for the objectors and move to the back of the bus. She refused and, after a 30-minute delay, the bus moved on to Jerusalem with her sitting up front.

A day after posting the account on Facebook, Rosenblit's story was picked up by the Israeli media, which has been devoting a lot of coverage to the public outcry over the growing political power of the ultra-Orthodox in Israel, and fears they are forcing the generally secular Israeli public to adopt their religious standards.

Israel's largest circulation newspaper put her story on its front page with the headline, "They Won't Tell Me Where to Sit," and compared Rosenblit to the American civil rights movement's legendary Rosa Parks.

Segregating genders in Jerusalem

On Sunday, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu brought up her story in his weekly cabinet meeting.

"Up until this day we have agreed to live in peace with mutual respect by all sectors of the Israeli society," he told his government ministers.

"In recent days we witness attempts to break this coexistence apart. Today, for example, I have heard of an attempt to move a woman from her seat on a bus. I oppose this unequivocally. I believe we must not allow margins groups to break our common denominator and we must keep our public spaces open and safe for all of our citizens. We must find the uniting and mediating ground rather than the things that divide and separate us." Netanyahu said.

Rosenblit also received a call from Israel's opposition leader, Tzipi Livni, who offered her support and called her a symbol of determination against "anti-democratic radicalization that pushes women away from the public space."

A spokesman for Egged, the transportation company that runs the bus line, told CNN in a statement that it "does not deal with seating arrangements" on its buses and that "even if there are population groups that prefer to sit separately due to their beliefs, it is a voluntary choice and does not bind the other passengers."

Rosenblit describes herself as secular and said she did not ride the bus looking for a confrontation. She said what motivated her to write about her experience was not "not to declare the Orthodox Jews as pure evil and the oppressors of human rights and liberties," but to point out what she sees as societal problem in Israel.

"There are a lot of lovely things about religion, but forcing people to choose religion is wrong," she said.

"It is wrong to use religion as an excuse to eliminate people's basic rights: the right for freedom and the right for dignity."

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