Court Limits Mea She'arim's Separation of Sexes on Sukkot

Court responds to petition against stringent separation of sexes at traditional celebration taking place nightly in the Haredi neighborhoods during the Sukkot holiday.

On Sunday, the High Court of Justice imposed limitations on the separation of men and women at this week's Sukkot festivities in Jerusalem's Mea She'arim neighborhood and said it would not permit such separation at all next year.

The court was responding to a petition by Jerusalem city councilwoman Rachel Azaria against the stringent separation of the sexes at the simchat beit hashoeva, a traditional celebration that takes place nightly in the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox ) neighborhood throughout the week-long Sukkot holiday.

Gender segregation - Emil Salman - 17102011
Emil Salman

For this week, the court ruled, the iron railings separating the streets into men's areas and women's areas could remain, but the burlap curtains used as barriers in certain parts of the neighborhood had to go immediately, as did the Haredi "ushers" who enforced the gender separation.

Next year, however, no separation of the sexes for religious reasons will be allowed in any of Mea She'arim's public areas, the court said. Barriers will be permitted only for security reasons, such as to limit the size of the crowds in certain spaces.

Azaria filed her petition after visiting the neighborhood on Thursday, the first day of Sukkot, and discovering that the prohibition on gender separation laid down by the court last year was being violated.

At Sunday's hearing, Jerusalem police chief Niso Shaham admitted that the police have not been enforcing the ban. They permitted the burlap curtains to be stretched along 26 meters of road leading to a building owned by Toldot Aharon, one of the most extreme Haredi sects. This is where the main festivity of the week will take place tomorrow.

In fact, the separation is even more stringent this year, Shaham acknowledged. Instead of men and women being directed to either side of the same street, this year the neighborhood has been demanding that men and women use separate streets.

"It is indeed shocking, but still it's only a couple dozen meters," he said.

He promised that the police would strictly enforce the court's rulings for this year and next.

"This is a long process of fighting for women in Israel, and for democracy," Azaria said afterward. But Haredi city councilmen harshly criticized her petition, with one, Yitzhak Pindrus (United Torah Judaism ), even calling it a provocation.