There is a bar in Tel Aviv called Rosa Parks. It's a nice place, one renowned for its clientele of intellectually engaging young women. I went there not long ago with a friend of mine who was visiting Tel Aviv from London, who happens to be black. When he saw the name of the bar he jokingly asked the barman,
"So, do I have to sit at the back of the room then?"
He got nothing but a blank look in response, the barman had no idea who the bar was named after, nor did he know her story.
That's changed now. The sex segregation of busses has become one of the hottest topics in Israeli domestic politics, coming to a head last week with the story of Tanya Rosenblit who refused to move to the back of a bus on the order of a religious Jewish man. Now she's being called 'The Israeli Rosa Parks.' She's not though, not yet anyway.
Rosa Parks was not the first African-American to take a stand against segregation, nor was she the best known, nor was the story of her protest the most unique. Nine months before Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give up her seat for a white person, 15-year-old Claudette Colvin was dragged off a bus in handcuffs for the crime of “seated while black.” Earlier still, in 1944 (three years before he would become the first black Major League Baseball player) Jackie Robinson was court-martialed for refusing to give up his seat on a bus to a white army officer.
Both of these other cases are far more exploitable, either due to the age or the celebrity of the accused, yet it was Rosa Parks: a middle-aged housekeeper and seamstress who we all remember. So, what was it about this seemingly regular woman that made her case the one that sparked the Montgomery bus boycott and turned the civil rights movement on its head, what made her story more compelling than that of a child or famous athlete?
The answer is a short and simple one: nothing. There was nothing that Parks did that those before her hadn't done, there was nothing in what she said that was new and she didn't represent any new demographic. What made Rosa Parks' action stand out so far among so many brave and principled people was the support she had from those around her, the work that she inspired others to do. Without her liberal white employer Clifford Durr representing her and joining with civil rights activist Edgar Nixon to bail her out of jail, Nixon would never have conferred with college professor Jo Ann Robinson and created the 35,000 leaflets in the space on one sleepless night that announced the Montgomery bus boycott. Without Nixon's influence, the Women's Political Council (of which Robinson was a member) would have never endorsed the boycott, lending it the legitimacy that it needed to take hold.
Although the names Durr, Nixon and Robinson are forgotten to history, it is they, just as much as Parks, who led to the eventual de-segregation of the United States.
Tanya Rosenblit has made her stand, but she wasn't the first. In 2006, Miriam Shear was slapped, kicked and punched by a group of Orthodox Jewish men on a Jerusalem bus for refusing to move to the back. Ester Scheiner spent weeks riding in the front of a segregated bus just to make the point.
For some reason, however, it is Tanya Rosenblit's story that has grabbed our attention. Just like Rosa Parks, she's an ordinary woman that just refused to move, and just like Claudette Colvin and Ester Scheiner, her actions will fade away if we don't galvanize around her and take a real stand. The enforced segregation of any public transport was outlawed by a Supreme Court ruling years ago, yet Tanya told the world that the policeman called to deal with her dispute didn't explain the law to the offending man, but rather asked an innocent and law-abiding woman to move.
Brave people can keep making stands, but this level of apathy will only lead to the continuation of the status quo. Tanya Rosenblit cannot do this alone, nor does it appear that she wants to. She needs her Durr, her Nixon and her Robinson. As a real and modern society, we need to take this as a call to arms, the rallying cry to crush this ridiculous practice where it stands.
Who knows, maybe one day I'll be visiting London and I'll grab a drink at a bar called Tanya's.
Josh Mintz is completing his degree in International Relations and Middle Eastern studies and is the communications director at Friend a Soldier, an NGO that encourages dialogue with IDF soldiers.
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