The reason the government should fund sex-segregated classes is to keep Orthodox Jewish students in state-run schools, the Education Ministry has told the High Court of Justice.
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The purpose of putting boys and girls in separate classes is “to prevent a drain of pupils and parents toward private religious schools,” the ministry told the High Court last week, in response to a petition by Israel Hofshit (Be Free Israel).
The group, which advocates pluralism and freedom of religion, has petitioned the High Court to overturn an Education Ministry decision made in August to approve government funding for sex-segregated classes in religious schools from fourth grade on, rather than have the studies funded by parents, local authorities and various nonprofits.
“It is disturbing that approximately 61 years after the United States Supreme Court overturned the principle of ‘separate but equal’ regarding racial segregation, the education minister of the State of Israel should see fit to perpetuate and expand — using public funds — gender-based discrimination, which is just as wrong,” states the petition.
The decision “is liable to create additional discrimination against schools that do not practice gender discrimination — state schools and state religious schools alike,” the petition says, explaining that segregated classes are likely to have fewer students than the often overcrowded mixed classes.
The Education Ministry told the High Court that many rabbis have ruled that “classes must be separated to inculcate habits of modesty and prevent permissiveness as early as school age,” and appended the ruling of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, the Shas spiritual leader who died last October.
“Every school that is run according to the Torah has a sacred duty to ensure the separation of boys and girls, particularly in our generation when permissiveness has gone beyond all limits. It is more necessary than ever,” Yosef said in the ruling appended to its response. “Separate classes are proper and desirable both academically and emotionally, and certainly spiritually.”
The proportion of elementary school students in sex-segregated classes has jumped from 40 percent in 2000 to 75 percent last year, according to religious Zionist movement Ne’emanei Torah Va’avodah. The group’s data indicate that the more strongly schools tended toward gender segregation, the higher the socioeconomic group their students came from.
Among religious public schools, there are separate classes in about 65 percent of elementary schools, the Education Ministry says. Boys and girls are completely separated in about 200 schools and partially separated in another 50. Only 150 schools are completely mixed.
As for Ovadia Yosef, he warned that leaders who let boys and girls study in the same classes ought to worry about the “incalculably great” sin.
“Public leaders have an obligation to tell their flocks about this ruling of the Torah, since every leader of mixed-gender education in schools or youth movements will bear his own iniquity, and his sin will be incalculably great, because we cannot know the ramifications of schooling that is not in accordance with the Torah,” Yosef wrote in his ruling. “Just as those who establish the school and those who run it have an obligation to run the school according to the spirit of the Torah, the parents also have a sacred duty to send their children to study in Torah schools, and God will certainly reward them well.”