Plan to Offer Gender Segregated Studies at Hebrew U Sparks Outcry Among Faculty

Some 300 faculty members sign petition against gender segregation; 'Gender segregation at Hebrew University would lead to disaster,' says one female lecturer.

Some 300 Hebrew University faculty members have signed a petition against gender segregation in the wake of the university’s plan to offer special B.A. programs to ultra-Orthodox students who want to study in gender segregated classrooms.

The university senate convened last week for a stormy meeting to discuss the university’s sponsoring the Jerusalem Haredi College run by Adina Bar Shalom and turning it into the university’s Haredi campus.

Due to the strong objection of its faculty, university rector Prof. Asher Cohen and President Prof. Menachem Ben Sasson decided not to raise the issue to a vote.

“The lecturers find it difficult to agree to a gender segregation among students,” Cohen told Haaretz.”We decided to continue discussing the issue in depth,” he said.

The petitioners say gender segregation violates the equality at the basis of academia’s spirit. Banning female lecturers from instructing male students is women’s exclusion de facto, they maintain.

Surrendering to the ultra-Orthodox’s demand of gender segregation will not bring about their integration in society, which is the point of making higher education accessible to them, they add. “The proposal contradicts the university’s founding writ and will not stand the test of the High Court of Justice,” wrote some of the lecturers who signed the petition.

“When I hear of gender segregation on a bus or in the street, I am outraged as a citizen. I don’t want this kind of thing to take place in my academic home,” says Prof. Rehav Rubin of Hebrew University.

“It’s a shocking idea,” one lecturer wrote. “Neither gender segregation or sectorial instruction should be allowed within university walls.”

“Gender segregation at Hebrew University would lead to disaster,” a female lecturer wrote.

“The norms of gender segregation and female exclusion are expanding,” said deputy rector Prof. Orna Kupferman, who was in charge of integrating Haredim. “They are contrary to every principle the university stands for. We’re dealing with a separation that constitutes hierarchy and discrimination...Women are [seen as] inferior and that’s that.”

Kupferman said that while she wanted Haredim to acquire higher education, “the segregation is also contrary to the university constitution, which says ‘the university will be open to all, regardless of race, gender or religion,’” she said.

“We’ve started a great move without segregation. Let’s continue it. There are more than 50 Haredi students in the university’s regular courses, 70 in preparatory courses and 85 percent of them want to continue studying for B.A. in our regular classes. An option with gender segregation will make it difficult for them to mingle,” she said.

Several universities and colleges have been sponsoring academic courses for Haredi students, in gender segregated classrooms, on other campuses for the past decade. Now the Council for Higher Education ‏(CHE‏) intends to set up Haredi campuses close to or inside the sponsoring university or college.

Most ultra-Orthodox students demand segregated classrooms, which means female lecturers cannot teach male students, but male lecturers may teach female students.

The CHE has banned compulsory gender segregation in Haredi classrooms in universities and colleges and said in a statement it issued that institutions may only recommend such segregation, not impose it. The CHE said it would take disciplinary steps against any institution that imposes segregation.

Today some 7,100 students are enrolled in Haredi colleges. Haifa, Tel Aviv and Bar-Ilan universities grant degrees to students in B’nei Brak’s Mivhar College and Jerusalem’s Haredi College. The students in these colleges attend separate classrooms for men and women.

The CHE has banned compulsory gender segregation in the Haredi classrooms to operate in universities and colleges. A university or college will take disciplinary steps against anyone pressuring to impose segregation on its grounds, the CHE said in a statement.

However, Bar-Ilan University accepts and upholds gender segregation. It is in the process of setting up a separate compound for Haredi classrooms on the campus outskirts, with separate entrances and exits for men and women. Next year it will offer optometry courses for women and two preparatory courses, one for men and one for women.

Bar-Ilan rector Professor Haim Teitelbaum says it’s important to bring ultra-Orthodox students to academic studies even at a price. “We’re not interested in changing them...If that’s the way they feel more comfortable studying, then that’s more important. There’s no point in insisting and demanding they study like the rest of the students. Our approach is live and let live. Both sides profit from it,” he says.

The Technion has recently opened a preparatory course for men only and is about to open a similar course for women only.

A Technion spokesman said the institution has undertaken to use male teachers in the all-male preparatory course, but in the degree studies the Haredi students may attend courses with female lecturers.

But unlike the Technion and Bar-Ilan University, at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem the prospect of a gender segregated campus is sparking angry reactions from faculty.

But a senior university official involved in Haredi education said: ”The Haredi public isn’t ripe to fit in the universities at this stage and needs separate frameworks.

“Something like the petition in Hebrew University could harm the drive for academic studies for Haredim, which is the most important part. It could deter Haredi students, who are hard to draw to academic studies as it is,” he said. Today the Hebrew University already has a Haredi, gender-segregated preparatory course together with the university-founded Magid Institute. The controversy was sparked by the possibility of offering gender-segregated B.A. studies.

Orel Cohen
Daniel Bar-On