Don't call me Rosa

Tanya Rosenblit has become an accidental symbol against the marginalization of women.

Beit Shemesh demo_521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Beit Shemesh demo_521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)

It is 1:30 P.M. and Tanya Rosenblit steps into her car on the way to work from her Ashdod home to tel Aviv, as a producer for Jewish news One (JN1), a recently launched English-language internet news network covering world news with a Jewish focus owned by Ukrainian billionaires Igor Kolomoisky and Vadim Rabinovich.

Like many young Israelis she has a full schedule, packed with work, studies and friends. but recently Rosenblit has also had to deal with something not so common: death threats via phone, e-mail and Facebook. the threats are being taken care of by the Tel Aviv police and Rosenblit doesn’t want to discuss them.

The articulate 28-year-old made headlines December 16 when she climbed onto bus no. 451 on her day off, on her way to Jerusalem from Ashdod and sat in the front seat behind the driver. it was a so-called mehadrin or ultra-kosher bus, in which men and women are tacitly segregated – men in front, women in back. the bus was empty and Rosenblit sat in front.

“I knew there were segregated buses but I didn’t know it was on that specific bus,” she explains in a conversation with The Jerusalem Report. she was not out to make any sort of statement, she says.

“I was the first one to board, so I just sat down.” No one said anything directly to her but one ultra-Orthodox man, upon seeing her in the front seat, blocked the bus door, preventing the bus driver from continuing his route. the man started making a fuss, recalls Rosenblit, who became slightly frightened with the commotion as more men gathered around the front door, speaking heatedly in Yiddish, then Hebrew, and gesturing angrily towards her. A policeman, summoned by the driver, initially tried to convince Rosenblit to move to the back of the bus.

Rosenblit refused to move. Why should respecting others be humiliating to her? She asked.

“It did cross my mind [to move] as an option, but it was not an option I could live with,” says Rosenblit. In the end, the man who had started the commotion remained behind in Ashdod and other men who boarded quietly walked by Rosenblit and sat in seats behind her.

Rosenblit, who immigrated to Israel with her parents and brother when she was four years old from Moldova, says she feels uncomfortable with the comparison that has been made between her and Rosa Parks, the American black woman who refused to give up her seat at the front of a bus in the 1960s segregated American South.

“I am humbled by that comparison,” says tall, dark-haired Rosenblit. “I am not really like Rosa Parks. she lived in a different time. she was living in a society where racism was the law and i am living in a society that is free.”

The unplanned confrontation came to the forefront at a time when emotions were already high in the battle over the place of women in the public sphere, which is being waged to counter the exclusion of the images of women in advertisements in Jerusalem and the refusal of some religious soldiers to attend army events where women sing.

Since then, at least two other women – another ultra-Orthodox woman and a soldier – were verbally abused when they refused to move to the back of the bus. An eight-year-old modern-Orthodox girl was spat on and verbally abused on her way to school by ultra-Orthodox men who thought she was not dressed modestly enough in the town of Beit Shemesh, just west of Jerusalem.

Following a petition by the Israel Religious Action Center last January, the high Court of Justice ruled to permit the operation of segregated buses on a “voluntary” basis for one year but all such buses must have stickers declaring that passengers are free to sit anywhere on the bus. but still, say activists, under such conditions an ultra-Orthodox woman must have a lot of courage to ignore the pressure to sit in back.

Both President shimon Peres and Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu came out emphatically against the incidents they said were against the values of a democratic society as well as Judaism, and strongly supported a mass demonstration in Beit Shemesh against the violence and attempts at segregation.

In a cabinet meeting following the incident, netanyahu insisted that extremists would not be allowed to dictate the nature of public space in the future. “fringe groups must not be allowed to tear apart our common denominator,” Netanyahu said. “We must preserve public space as open and safe for all citizens of Israel.”

With emotions surrounding the issue running high, two ultra-Orthodox children also reported being verbally and physically attacked by a secular man when they were at bus stops in Jerusalem.

Rosenblit, who four months ago began to study journalism and script writing at the Camera Obscura School of Art in Tel Aviv after working in a lab, is trying to make sense of the growing turmoil surrounding the issue of segregation in public spaces.

In some neighborhoods this entails separate sidewalks for men and women, separate check-out lines in supermarkets and pizza parlors, separate public health

clinic buildings and the prevention ofwomen from participating in funerals at public cemeteries.

In her search to understand the deeper roots of the issue, she has started to meet with several rebbetzins, wives of prominent rabbis, whom she does not want to name.

“The ultra-Orthodox are afraid of pluralism. They have one truth and think everyone should be that way.

I don’t understand that so well. Maybe that is the source of the problem. And we secular people should stop hating [the ultra- Orthodox] and stop being afraid of them.

No matter how many there are, they are weak. We have to be considerate without hurting anyone’s rights,” she says earnestly. On one hand Rosenblit would like to fade away from the public consciousness and return to her own private life but, on the other hand she recognizes the importance of having a platform to speak out on a subject of such importance to her.

And hers is a voice of understanding and moderation. A poised young woman who served in the army intelligence unit, Rosenblit refuses to get pulled into any extremes. “The issue has gotten out of proportion in every way,” she says of the violence which has been on the rise. “It is important for both sides to be tolerant towards one another. The solution is to make people understand that hurting someone else is not the answer.”

Her father, a religiously observant physicist, and her mother, a journalist, have both been supportive of the stance she has taken, she says.

Rosenblit was invited by Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat to testify before an inter-ministerial committee aimed at developing a governmental plan of how to deal with the segregation issue. She had meant to talk there, says Rosenblit, but after sitting in for a bit hearing the various views expressed, she chose instead first to listen. “There were a lot of opinions there and it became very vocal. That’s normal, it’s the Knesset,” she says.

“So I just decided to listen and to learn.” While she understands the goals of the “Freedom Riders,” which was formed in reaction to the segregated buses, where groups of men and women have ridden specifically on segregated buses, she believes they are more of a provocation rather than a help. And one provocation generally leads to another, she says.

“I think it is education in the end [which will solve the problem] and that is a process. The important thing is not to incite more hate than is already there. That is dangerous,” she says. “When secular people condemn all Haredim, they are also condemning those [moderate Haredim] who can help him with the extremists.”

Israel could be such a better place, she muses, if people actually respected both sides without the need for laws or harassment.

She laughs. “I know I sound very naïve,” she says as she nears her destination in tel Aviv. “but i do believe we can reach something like that in the near future.”