The Hebrew University Senate debated a complex and sensitive subject 10 days ago: the relationship between the higher education system and the ultra-Orthodox public.
According to the proposal under discussion, the Hebrew University would assume control of the ultra-Orthodox college opened a few years ago by Adina Bar Shalom, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef's daughter. This means Hebrew University would be granting academic degrees in a separate program intended for the ultra-Orthodox.
The proposal was based on a plan published about a year ago by the Council for Higher Education's subcommittee on planning and funding. The goal of the plan was to arrange academic studies for ultra-Orthodox students on campuses that were either affiliated with or part of academic institutions.
At the end of an intense debate, it was decided that the matter of an ultra-Orthodox campus should not be brought to a vote - particularly in light of the strong objections from the faculty.
Indeed, the desire to promote academic studies among the ultra-Orthodox cannot come at the expense of egalitarian principles on which Hebrew University and other institutions were founded. No "accessibility" and no "incorporation of the ultra-Orthodox" can legitimize gender separation and the segregation of women. The heads of the university should join the fight against this affliction instead of extending it to the higher education system.
A document published by the subcommittee on planning and funding about a year ago stated that "arrangements for separation [between men and women] would be a recommendation only," and that "the academic institution will take significant steps against anyone who exerts pressure to enforce" such separation.
That is dissimulation. The demand for gender separation is no longer the province of the ultra-Orthodox alone. It is creeping into other, broader groups. Not only are religious soldiers and the rabbis who speak for them demanding "consideration" - so are schools belonging to the state religious system, schools which are generously funded by the state. Most of these schools begin separating genders as early as the first grade.
The authorities have shown continuing helplessness in the face of growing extremism. There is no reason to assume that a similar process will not take place in the higher education system.
Hebrew University, like other academic institutions, is a public space in which students from different groups study and, while doing so, meet one another. This crucial interaction is one of the hallmarks of a liberal society in which women and men are to be treated equally. The university's leaders would do well not to sponsor - academically or otherwise - an institution whose principles contravene these basic tenets.
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