Bus fuss evokes US civil-rights protest

By Nathan Jeffay, December 29, 2011
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Never, since the days of Rosa Parks, half-a-century ago, has a single bus-ride turned a citizen in to the heroine of thousands. A fortnight ago, Tania Rosenblit refused to sit in the back half of a bus where passengers normally segregate according to gender.

When some male Charedi passengers told her to move from the front half, she refused. One Charedi man stood in the doorway and delayed the Ashdod-to-Jerusalem bus in protest, until police were called.

The Israeli press compared her to Parks, the African-American civil rights activist who famously refused to give her seat to a white passenger. US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton commented earlier this month that Israel's segregated bus routes reminded her of Parks's era.

Everybody in politics, including Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, commented on Ms Rosenblit's experience, and she was invited to the Knesset to speak. Overnight, an unknown 28-year-old producer on the new cable channel, Jewish News One, was a national celebrity.

"Segregated buses are just one part of the picture - we're fighting extremism here," she said in an interview.

Segregated bus lines began running in Israel in the late 1990s, operated as private enterprises by Charedim who wanted what they deemed a more modest environment for travel. Realising the economic potential, companies running public buses started to segregate some of their lines.

The activist arm of Israel's Reform movement has led a public battle against segregated buses. "Segregation is discrimination against women. It's a visual act of putting women in a lower place," said its legal director Einat Hurvitz.

A year ago, its legal challenge against the bus lines resulted in a court ruling that enforced segregation was illegal but if passengers chose to segregate, they could. This has led to a situation where segregation, though not strictly speaking compulsory, is the social norm on some lines.

Ms Hurvitz, who has sent women to monitor the lines, says that non-Charedi women who want to ride at the front are normally left alone. "Usually she's not harassed, because they see her as an outsider."

Ms Rosenblit thinks the comparisons between her and Parks have been "a bit over the top" and, despite her concerns about "extremism", thinks that Ms Clinton spoke out of turn.

Last updated: 6:59pm, January 4 2012