The Back of the Bus by Judy Bolton-Fasman

Tanya Rosenblit is still stunned that she garnered international attention last month when she refused to move to the back of a public Egged Bus in Israel. She never intended to make a statement about sexism or racism in Israeli society, she said; she simply wanted to save a little time. The bus, which she boarded in her hometown of Ashdod, travels mostly through fervently Orthodox – haredi – neighborhoods. But the bus was convenient, stopping five minutes from where Rosenblit had a business meeting in Jerusalem. Unfamiliar with the route, she took a seat behind the driver so he could point out her stop.

Rosenblit said it was only after other passengers looked askance at her that she realized she was breaking an unspoken rule on the bus: Women were expected to sit in the back. While it is illegal in Israel to force gender segregation on public buses, there is often a tacit agreement to comply when the majority of riders are haredi.

Rosenblit, who is 28, describes herself as “secular by choice.” Born in Moldova, she and her family immigrated to Israel in 1988. She graduated from Tel Aviv University in 2008 with a degree in biomedical engineering and is currently studying screenwriting and film. Since September she has been a producer for Jewish News One, a new independent satellite network that covers international news from a Jewish perspective.

The fateful bus trip on Dec. 16 earned her the moniker “Israel’s Rosa Parks.” In a recent email exchange, Rosenblit said, “the description makes me laugh a bit.”

She recounted that two stops after she boarded Egged Bus 451, a haredi passenger noticed her in the front seat as he paid his fare. The man prevented the driver from closing the door and started shouting obscenities at her. He called his friends to come to the bus stop to start an impromptu protest.

“During the entire incident no one asked me to move,” Rosenblit said. “Even when they started that demonstration outside the bus, I knew I was the cause. But no one bothered to address me.” The driver eventually called the police to intervene. An officer asked Rosenblit if “I would be willing to respect them [the haredi on the bus] and move to the back section. I refused, saying that I don’t think I’d be respecting anyone by humiliating myself, and I remained seated behind the driver.”

Merav Michaeli, a columnist for Haaretz, asserts that this latest “festival of (and against) women” is taking place in a political climate that “brings the right-wing, super-Jewish, anti-democratic feelings – as well as various forms of oppression – to the surface and is causing more and more people to lose any shame they might have had about excluding women. And perhaps this sloughing off of shame is what is annoying the public.”

Although Rosenblit pierced that silence for a moment, she maintained: “This [incident] and the big buzz it’s been getting is a response to a very radical act. The fight is not against religion or the Orthodox community. This phenomenon of segregated buses was initiated by radicals and has many opponents among the Orthodox community.”

Ester Scheiner, an Orthodox woman who describes herself as “a freedom rider,” has been riding public buses to highlight the crisis. In an opinion piece published last month in the Jerusalem Post, Scheiner wrote: “Relegating women to the back of the bus, burka-wearing, and the disappearance of images of women and even young girls from newspapers are things that can quickly become customary in a community that treasures traditions. This is why we must speak up and make it clear that these things were not part of the Judaism of our grandparents.”

Yet for all of the public and political support Rosenblit has attracted, she’s ultimately uncomfortable with the comparison to Rosa Parks. “Rosa Parks lived in another time and in a country where racism was the law. I live in a free country. The proof that [Israel] is free is that I became famous over such a triviality.”

But Rosenblit is adamant about using her newfound fame to expose a larger fight against extremists of any kind. “The fact that my case made the headlines is amazing to me. But nonetheless I’m grateful for the voice I was given.”

* * *

In a late development in, Rosenblit told Tel Aviv police that she had received threats on her life by phone and email and through Facebook, Ynet reported Wednesday.

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