A Mea She’arim street with a dividing wall to separate between men and women.
A Mea She’arim street with a dividing wall to separate between men and women, which was taken down after a court deemed it unacceptable on September 28, 2010. Photo by Tomer Neuberg
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Barriers separating men and women on the main street of the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighborhood of Mea She'arim were removed Tuesday after the High Court of Justice ruled that the barriers were unacceptable.

"Any division of the public space in Israel is illegal, and the police - located just two streets away from Mea She'arim - can't treat a certain area as 'extraterritorial,'" Jerusalem city council member Rachel Azaria, one of several people who had filed a petition against the barriers, said before the hearing.

Aviad Hacohen, the petitioners' attorney, said the ruling sends an important message against discrimination.

"No more gender-based discrimination in the public space, including Mea She'arim," he said. "Every resident of and visitor to Jerusalem has the right to walk its streets, and the police must protect that right and prevent any attempt to violate the status quo in the city."

Attorneys from the State Prosecutor's Office said at the hearing that an agreement had been reached between police and representatives of the ultra-Orthodox Eda Haredit group stipulating that the barriers would be immediately taken down and the use of pedestrian traffic controllers stopped.

The decision effectively puts an end to the years-long tradition of gender segregation during the Sukkot holiday.

A march will be held in Jerusalem today to protest the wider phenomenon of gender segregation in the city. Some 50 Meretz party activists and university students are expected to take part.

After police rejected activists' request to march through Mea She'arim, organizers took the case to the High Court. Judges Miriam Naor, Esther Hayut and Uzi Vogelman ultimately decided on a compromise allowing the rally to take place in a section of Mea She'arim but not to end in Shabbat Square, a major neighborhood landmark.

For the past several years, Mea She'arim Street has been closed to cars in the evening due to the influx of residents and visitors streaming to the quarter's batei midrash (study halls ) for Sukkot festivities. This year as well, a barrier was set up to separate male and female pedestrians, and both Mea She'arim and Shivtei Yisrael streets were marked off with checkpoints and security personnel to keep women away from the area where the hard-line Toldot Aharon Hasidim are concentrated.

This year's barrier, however, was smaller than in previous years, when checkpoints were deployed in various locations around the neighborhood.

The petitioners asked the High Court to issue an interim injunction instructing police to enforce anti-discrimination laws in Mea She'arim and prevent "the use of fences separating men and women in an accessible public space. This impinges on human dignity, freedom and equality."

At the petition hearing, prosecutors cited Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein's support for prohibiting gender segregation in public spaces such as city streets.

The response from Mea She'arim residents was more muted than many observers had expected.

Before the hearing Yoel Krois, a representative of the ultra-Orthodox community in the area, said: "The police won't take down the barriers because they're everywhere. It's the right of Toldot Aharon to deploy them.

"There are barriers at Haoman 17, and nobody tries to take them down," Krois said, referring to a nightclub.

Haim Pappenheim, a spokesman for Eda Haredit, tried yesterday to minimize the barriers' significance.

"We set them up for just a few hours, because we wanted things to be orderly. People were asked to be considerate in the vicinity of synagogues, and they warmly agreed," he said. "We never wanted to limit freedom of movement for women. It's a shame the High Court decided to get into this."