A rights group in Israel is calling on the country’s medical association to forbid doctors from taking part in a Jerusalem women’s health event scheduled for Tuesday that is closed to women participants.
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The event is co-sponsored by one of Israel’s leading - and publicly funded - HMOs, Meuhedet, and the ultra-Orthodox medical institute Yad HaRamah. It is meant to focus on research and innovation in women's health, bringing together medical experts, rabbis, teachers, and experts in Jewish law for dialogue and discussion.
A spokesperson for the conference told the Ynet news website that not only were women absent from the roster of speakers and panelists at the event, but that they were barred from the audience as well.
Uri Regev, director-general of Hiddush, a nonprofit organization that promotes religious freedom and equality, declared that “the existence of this conference proves how crucial it is that the exclusion of women be declared a criminal act. The idea that the Meuhedet HMO and the Shaare Zedek hospital can hold an event in which exclusively male doctors and rabbis gather and discuss women’s medical issues without even one woman doctor is a surreal phenomenon that one hardly believes can exist in what claims to be a Western country.”
Charging the HMO with “sucking up” to the haredi public by agreeing to exclude women, Regev said that medical professionals should stay away from the gathering. The participation of senior doctors in such an event, he said, represents a “blatant violation” of a decision by the medical association’s ethics board forbidding discrimination against women and determined that “doctors will not participate in any medical or scientific event in which women are excluded.”
After the protest hit the headlines, Meuhedet issued a statement saying that the event was designed to serve its clientele in the Jerusalem area, which includes 250,000 ultra-Orthodox members and was part of its mission to serve all elements of the population and that “the conference was designed for the rabbis of Jerusalem neighborhoods with the goal of strengthening the connection with the communities rabbis and the HMO through open dialogue with doctors who practice gynecology. The goal of the conference is to encourage dialogue with tens of these neighborhood rabbis (with whom the hundreds of thousands of our clients consult) The nature of the event was designed to suit the target audience it is trying to serve.”
However, after learning of the men-only conference, other Jerusalem clients of the Meuhedet HMO said they were outraged and that they planned to file a complaint. One of them, Cheryl Birkner Mack told Haaretz that it was “incomprehensible that a conference on women’s health could take place without one woman present. Doctors, researchers and others have much to contribute to this discussion, women as much as, if not more, than men.”
The controversy echoed protest over a similar event that took place three years ago, when two prominent Israeli doctors canceled their participation in a conference on fertility and Jewish law organized by a religious medical advocacy group Pua, after learning that organizers informed female gynecological and fertility professionals that they would not be able to speak at the event nor participate in any of its panels.
The Pua event sparked a widespread public protest and Facebook campaign. At the time, one of the doctors who refused to attend, Prof Yuval Yaron from Ichilov Hospital’s Lis Maternity Hospital, wrote to the organizers that “the assertion that women cannot be invited as lecturers in a conference on women’s medicine is both professionally absurd and represents an exclusion of women in the full sense of the word.”