ultra-Orthodox passenger - Tanya Rosenblit - 18122011
Ultra-Orthodox passengers waiting for the Jerusalem-bound bus on Friday. Photo by Tanya Rosenblit
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Israel's political leaders and chief rabbis Sunday condemned efforts to segregate women from men on public buses. The outcry followed an incident on Friday in which Talia Rosenblit, a 28-year-old woman, refused to obey the demand of a male passenger to move to the back of the bus, which was heading from Ashdod to Jerusalem. The man prevented the bus from departing for an extended period and police were called. Rosenblit refused a policeman's request that she move to the rear and ultimately the male passenger, who had been insisting she do so, got off the bus.

In response, at the beginning of Sunday's cabinet meeting Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu condemned gender segregation on public transportation. "Today I heard about moving a woman on a bus. I adamantly oppose this," Netanyahu said. "Fringe groups must not be allowed to tear apart our common denominator. We must preserve public space as open and safe for all citizens of Israel."

Opposition leader Tzipi Livni of the Kadima party, who called Rosenblit, said her "personal determination symbolized the need that all of us who fear for Israel's image have to fight and not give in."

For his part, Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi Yona Metzger, who is ultra-Orthodox himself, told an ultra-Orthodox radio station, Kol Barama: "If we want there to be separation, it is very legitimate for us to establish a special bus company on certain routes, and then we will be the 'bosses,' but as long as [others] are paying [the same fare] that I do, and it's a public company that doesn't only serve the ultra-Orthodox population, what can we do?"

The No. 451 bus on which Rosenblit was a passenger is considered a line on which there is purportedly voluntary gender separation. The policy is part of a plan that was instituted over two years ago on a trial basis on more than 50 bus lines.

The legality of the bus lines was taken up in the High Court of Justice in January. The court allowed the operation of the buses to continue, but also provided grounds for opponents of gender segregation to claim victory in that the court did not allow the creation of additional segregated lines and banned forced segregation.

The practice began on crowded buses in Jerusalem, but has not been extended, for example, to the ultra-Orthodox Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak. Centrist ultra-Orthodox figures have not made it into an issue.

The incident involving Rosenblit was not the only such case, but it became prominent because it highlights the broader controversy of the exclusion of women in the public sphere, manifested recently in the practice of not featuring women on outdoor advertising in areas where it might cause offense to ultra-Orthodox sensibilities.

Rosenblit will testify before an inter-ministerial committee headed by Culture and Sports Minister Limor Livnat which has been entrusted to develop a government action plan to deal with the exclusion of women in public places.

In response to a Facebook page opposing gender-segregated buses, over 2,000 people have indicated that they plan to attend a demonstration on January 1 opposing the lines. The Facebook page calls on opponents of the bus lines to board the bus lines and to physically prevent the separation of men and women.

(With reporting by AP )