Initiative for Gender Segregated Higher Education Puts Universities on the Defensive

An initiative for gender-segregated tracks at universities is gaining momentum among the religious Zionist movement, but the academic authorities are vehemently opposed. Will it prevail over their protests?

Eliyahu Hershkovitz

In recent weeks, signs have been showing up in hesder yeshivas (which combine religious studies with army service), pre-army courses for the religiously observant, and schools of religious studies. “For many years,” the signs say, “we, the graduates of an education system that meticulously observes separation between boys and girls, have been forced to compromise in this matter when we enter university. There is no need to elaborate on the value of modesty or on the immodesty that exists in the universities.”

There is a solution, according to the texts. The Bet Midrash Yeshivati, an NGO whose members include the heads of yeshivas, army-preparatory units and midrashot (religious schools), is spearheading a collective effort “to achieve proper religious-study conditions together with obtaining a university degree.”

This effort, in fact, constitutes a first attempt to persuade the country’s universities to create separate tracks for male and female students, such as exist in the educational institutions of the religiously observant community.

A study conducted on behalf of the Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah (literally, Torah and Work Faithful) movement – whose website says its aim is “to create a thinking religious culture that is open and self-critical” – found that while in the year 2000, some 40 percent of the classes in the primary schools affiliated with the state-religious education system were gender-separated, by 2013 the figure had reached 57 percent.

Bet Midrash Yeshivati runs religious studies enrichment programs for students and working people alike According to the NGO’s director, Rabbi Aviv Ziegelman, the need for gender-segregated tracks came up in conversations between rabbis at yeshivas and their graduates who are going onto higher education. Specifically, the idea of creating what his organization calls a “purchasing group” (based on the model of groups of people who organize to buy housing collectively, at a discount from contractors) came up about a month ago.

Still in the nascent stage, the plan, Ziegelman tells Haaretz, is to organize students – whether in law, medicine, social sciences or other faculties – gathering enough of them for a specific major, and then to let the universities bid on the students in the hope that they will commit to creating gender-separated classes. “Many dozens” have already expressed interest, Ziegelman says.

Why is such separation needed for people in their twenties?

Ziegelman: “The problem is not the mixed environment, it’s the norms of modesty. I will illustrate with an example that demonstrates this, in a certain sense. There are people who are bothered by having to sit in a classroom in which people smoke. They can live with it, but it disturbs them, and in principle, too, they believe they should not have to live with smoking around them.

“Likewise, when the standards of modesty are low, there are people who are uncomfortable with this. They are used to different standards and believe they should not have to compromise. Just as there is a ‘smoking area,’ I want to create a ‘modesty area’ that allows me to depart from the public space of the campus to a place that is appropriate for me.”

But when the graduates of the separate tracks enter the labor market, they will encounter a mixed environment. Why can they cope with one and not the other?

“The accepted norms of modesty in places of work are generally higher than they are on campuses.”

Will you call for the introduction of separation in the workplace as well?

“The phrase ‘call for the introduction of separation’ is infuriating. It makes my position extreme and renders it threatening. I do not want to shape anyone’s way of life according to my standards. I want to be allowed to live according to my belief. I expect pluralists and advocates of minority rights to support this initiative. If we want to go on living here together, the discourse of intimidation has to be stopped and a place of respect must be granted to ‘the other,’ as he is. We need to stop shaping the culture of ‘the other’ and create ‘academic freedom’ in the cultural sense, too.”

The Bet Midrash Yeshivati initiative claims the support of leading figures in the religious Zionist movement, among them Rabbi Shmuel Eliyahu, Rabbi Shlomo Rosenfeld, Rabbi Elazar Aharonson and Rabbi Shlomo Aviner. Aviner confirms by phone that he is in favor.

“Within the religious public, the education systems are separate; there are separate colleges and other frameworks. But it is more natural to allow everyone to be at the universities, and to allow separate tracks there. Of course, it is impossible to establish programs in medicine or nuclear physics in private, segregated colleges,” he says, which is why religious people need universities with segregated classes.

But it’s not really being with everyone – you are talking about a separate track.

Aviner: “True. I would say also as a comparison – it is good for a city to have religious and secular people. But not a lone religious individual, who will not be able to find educational frameworks for his children.”

Opposite trends

In general, reactions to the new gender-separation scheme have been less than enthusiastic. Says Rabbi Uri Regev, CEO of Hiddush, an organization that supports religious freedom and equality: “It looks as though some of the fanatic Hardali [referring to a fusion of ultra-Orthodox and religious Zionist traditions] rabbis feel that after their success in forcing the benighted norms of separation upon the state-national-religious education system – the time has come to force them on institutions of higher learning too.”

In the view of Shmuel Shattah, executive director of Ne’emanei Torah Va’Avodah, an Orthodox organization that fights religious extremism, the Bet Midrash Yeshivati initiative represents both positive and negative trends.

“The positive one,” he explains, “is that there are rabbis who are calling for [people to pursue] university studies without being afraid of science and academia. That is a welcome phenomenon.”

The study by Shattah’s group of graduates from state-religious high schools, between 1996 and 2004, found a decline in the percentage going on to higher education, but an increase in those who continued their studies in gender-segregated college-level frameworks.

According to Shattah, one of the reasons for this is of course the desire for preservation of modesty. “The rabbis are generally afraid of academia,” he says.

In response to an article on the subject on the Orthodox (Hebrew) website www.kipa.co.il, Shattah wrote, “Building walls like this is not possible in the contemporary world, in which the religiously observant are exposed to a material culture in many forms and in many places. If the religious education system, including its yeshivas, has not equipped its students with a sufficient spiritual ballast for dealing with that – it’s not clear what it exists for.”

This is not the first attempt to create gender-segregated tracks for the Orthodox public in colleges and universities. According to a spokesman for the Council for Higher Education, “similar approaches were rejected in the past.”

For his part, Ziegelman says he was already involved in an effort by the Bnei David Yeshiva to set up separate tracks at Ariel University, in the West Bank.

At present, there are 10 such segregated programs at academic institutions in the country, but they cater solely to the ultra-Orthodox population. They include the pre-university preparatory programs at the Technion – Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and in the optometry and engineering faculties at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan.

The policy in general, according to the Council for Higher Education, is to prohibit separation by gender at institutions of higher learning, other than for Haredim.

“A reminder and clarification to these institutions was recently issued,” the CHE spokesman told Haaretz. “Any institution that wishes to introduce a special program [of any sort] must receive CHE authorization, and any request for a program involving gender separation will be rejected out of hand. If we discover that such a program has been created without our authorization, we will take immediate action to shut it down and bring the institution involved before the [CHE] supervision and enforcement committee.”

But if there are separate tracks for Haredim, why not also for the national-religious public? The response from CHE: “The higher-education system needs to be egalitarian and without gender separation. Exceptionally, however, owing to the national need to integrate the Haredi population into the productive economy, the CHE and its committee for planning and budgets allowed separate academic tracks for that public, due to its way of life and gaps in knowledge (arising from the fact that core subjects are not studied in Haredi high schools). The programs exist only at the undergraduate level.”