Gender segregation is in effect at 65 percent of the state-run religious elementary schools in Israel, according to data obtained by Haaretz from the Education Ministry's elementary school supervision department. The figures show that boys and girls study together in only 140 religious elementary schools around the country, with the remaining schools strictly adhering to absolute gender separation - in some places starting in Grade 1, and elsewhere in Grades 3 or 4.
According to the former head of the Religious Education Administration, Dr. Mati Dagan, the situation just a decade ago was entirely different, with fewer than 25 percent of the religious elementary schools enforcing gender separation.
"Today, we are seeing a phenomenon of the breaking down of the religious-Zionist ideology, which in the past spoke of both this and that - both religious and open, too, to general education," Dagan says. "We are talking about an act of defense against society on the whole, expressed in a depreciation with regard to the issue of integration."
For his part, former Deputy Education Minister Rabbi Michael Melchior speaks of a general trend of radicalization "that is being expressed in a wide range of issues alongside the issue of gender separation and the exclusion of the place of the woman."
According to Melchior, "this is part of the strategy of religious education, which first and foremost wants to incorporate the entire Haredi-national religious public within it. In and of itself, this is not a bad thing, but it comes with a price - the Haredi-national religious perspective's absolute takeover, both with regard to content and with respect to the limiting of humanistic values such as democracy ... This restricts the Torah to a smaller place, and this is what worries me.
"It began with high school, moved to the youth movements and elementary schools, and soon it will also be at the creche, and people will no longer sit together at events. The [religious] public is putting itself more and more in a substantially separate place from the general Israeli public and the possibility of creating a society together."
In many instances, the separation phenomenon has been taking place in recent years contrary to the Education Ministry's official practices. According to the ministry's budgetary model, a class should not be divided up unless the number of students in it exceeds 40. In practice, however, school principals are opening numerous classes in order to put the gender separation policy into effect.
Figures obtained by Haaretz show that the cost of separating the classes contrary to the regulations comes to some NIS 11 million. School principals are using money from other sources to fund this cost - parents' payments, funds, other school study hours and the like.
Meanwhile, MK Zevulun Orlev (Habayit Hayehudi ) wants the Education Ministry to finance the separation: "I have no doubt that they won't suddenly begin studying together, and it is impossible to force the parents to accept a method of education that goes against their way of life," Orlev says. "The alternative is for them to erect more private schools or go to the Haredi school system ... The ministry must provide a solution for these classes."
But attorney Ricky Shapira-Rosenberg of the Reform Center for Religion and State sees Orlev's initiative as containing an "element of discrimination."
According to Shapira-Rosenberg, "it creates smaller classes in relation to those at religious schools that do not enforce separation and in relation to those at the state schools ... If such a policy is put into practice, it will only encourage more and more separation and fall in line with the radicalization that we are witnessing of late and is leading to the exclusion of women."
The principal of a state-run religious school at which gender separation is in effect from Grade 1 explained: "The vast majority today accepts the separation because being a part of the Torah education system is a label. This population is truly leading today ... The national-religious education system is a mirror of religious Zionism as a whole."
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