* Bus rider likened to Rosa Parks for not sitting in back
* Secular Israelis fret at spread of religious mores
By Dan Williams
JERUSALEM, Dec 18 A woman's refusal to sit
at the back of a Jerusalem-bound bus as demanded by
ultra-religious Jews moved Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on
Sunday to warn about the dangers of gender segregation in
The Facebook-fuelled protest by 28-year-old Tanya Rosenblit
aboard a public bus on Friday became front-page news in Israel,
whose secular Jewish majority often frets at signs of the rising
political power of the pious.
The episode followed widespread outrage at zealot settlers
in the occupied West Bank who have vandalised Palestinian
property and turned on Israel's revered conscript military by
rioting at one of its garrisons.
"Israeli society is a complex mosaic of Jews and Arabs, of
secular and religious and ultra-Orthodox, and to this day we
have agreed to peaceful coexistence," Netanyahu told his cabinet
in broadcast remarks.
"Recently we have witnessed attempts to fray this
coexistence," he said, citing Rosenblit's experience. "I totally
oppose this. I think that we must not let fringe groups
dismantle our common ground, and we must preserve public spaces
as open and safe spaces for all the citizens of Israel."
Several gender-segregated bus routes cross ultra-Orthodox
neighbourhoods in Jerusalem. Under Israeli law, women are not
obliged to sit in the back of the vehicles but many do so out of
deference to tradition or under scrutiny by male passengers.
Rosenblit, who describes herself as a producer for a Jewish
news service, said she had been aware that the bus she had taken
catered to the ultra-Orthodox and she had dressed conservatively
so as not to cause offence.
But she sat up front and refused to move when the bus
reached a religious neighbourhood, prompting one man to curse
her and block the doorway, while several others watched until
police came and removed him, Rosenblit said.
"It was frightening. An almighty ruckus. Most of them looked
at me like a strange statue or a space alien," she told Israel's
biggest-selling newspaper, Yedioth Ahronoth. "The man who
started all the outcry shouted, 'This is our line!'"
"There are a lot of marvellous things in religion, but it
must not be used as an excuse to harm basic human rights," said
Yedioth compared her to African-American Rosa Parks, who
served as a catalyst for the U.S. civil rights movement by
refusing to give up her seat to a white passenger on an Alabama
bus in 1955.
The black-garbed ultra-Orthodox Jews, known as "Haredim"
from the Hebrew term for the "dread" of God evinced in their
stringently ascetic and patriarchal lifestyles, make up only
about 10 percent of Israel's population of 7.7 million.
But they constitute around a quarter of Jews in the holy
city of Jerusalem, and their high birthrates and bloc voting
patterns have helped them secure welfare benefits and wider
influence in society.
Haredi mores have also reached the military, with some
Orthodox soldiers boycotting entertainment troupes with women
"We have no authority to come and impose our will on the
whole community," said Yona Metzger, one of Israel's two
state-appointed chief rabbis, in a radio appeal that was
unlikely to resonate among Haredim who heed their own religious
Transportation Minister Israel Katz pledged to step up
enforcement of the ban on forced segregation on public buses.
Rosenblit said the policeman summoned to deal with her case
on Friday at first asked her if she would consider "respecting
them (Haredim) and sitting in the rear". A police spokesman did
not dispute that account.
"I answered: 'I have respected them enough by dressing
modestly,'" Rosenblit said.
(Editing by Mark Trevelyan)