Israel’s Council for Higher Education Now Allows Gender Segregation on Campuses

In a bid to integrate ultra-Orthodox men at colleges and universities, the council permits separation as long as it's ‘voluntary’

File photo: An all-male classroom at the Orthodox Jerusalem College, 2013.
Emil Salman

The Council for Higher Education is now allowing gender segregation on college and university campuses – not just in classrooms – as a way to integrate men in Israel's ultra-Orthodox community.

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The council had previously told the High Court of Justice that gender separation was permitted only in classrooms, but now it is also allowed by holding separate study days for each gender, as long as this separation is not “coerced,” the council said.

The council, headed by Education Minister Naftali Bennett of the Habayit Hayehudi party, did not elaborate on how to ensure that this segregation was voluntary. If experience is any guide, at one institution a “waiting room” allows men to avoid seeing women in the library.

>> Dress codes and separate entrances: Gender segregation in Israeli universities expands beyond the classroom 

The courts have already ordered the removal of signs requesting this kind of segregation in the city of Beit Shemesh near Jerusalem.

Following the first High Court petition four years ago against separate programs for the ultra-Orthodox, or Haredim, the council said gender segregation would be limited to the classroom. In 2017, the council reiterated this position in its response to a second petition by a group of academics.

According to the council, segregation contradicts fundamental principles of higher education, but the integration of the Haredim into higher education is an effort worth the risk of undermining equality.

To substantiate the claim that the injury is “proportionate,” the council once told the court that “gender segregation is possible only in the classroom and there will be no separation in the public spaces on campus.”

In response to questions by attorney Hagai Kalai, who is representing the petitioners headed by Yofi Tirosh, the council said it is now possible to assign men and women different days of study, different hours of study or even separate campuses, as long as there is no coercion.

“The CHE’s position is that there is no prohibition against opening separate campuses for men and women located in different geographic areas,” the council said, adding: “There is no prohibition against holding exams on separate days for men and women .... There is no prohibition against allocating different study days for men and women.”

Regarding separate days or hours for men and women, the colleges and universities are asked to “refrain from blocking entrance based on gender to the campus at all times, even on the days not the designated study days for people of that gender.”

A roster of segregating schools

Separate days or hours based on gender are held at schools such as Bar-Ilan University, Ono Academic College and the College of Management. “Coerced gender separation is forbidden in public areas” such as cafeterias, libraries and labs, the council writes, adding that “institutions that force separation in public areas are disciplined.”

But the council does not provide any method for determining women’s consent to a separate arrangement.

Also, in a relatively closed world like the Haredi community, the power of a request for separation is particularly strong; resisting it requires courage. In this respect, the council’s distinction between “coerced” and “voluntary” separation is unclear.

Last week, Haaretz’s Hebrew edition reported on a study by Hebrew University’s Netta Barak-Corren challenging the council’s claim that the separate tracks are necessary to integrate the Haredim into academia. According to Barak-Corren, a law lecturer, when the council says there is a Haredi consensus against mixed studies, it bolsters that position and deters Haredim from choosing such studies.

“In conservative societies, the gap between the social perception of the norm and the attitudes people actually hold tends to be particularly large,” she writes, in part because of “the appearance of a social consensus” that the council is reinforcing.

Also in question is the council’s promise to “discipline” institutions that violate the regulations. Four months ago, Haaretz reported that a number of institutions operating separate programs for Haredim – including Bar-Ilan University, Ono Academic College, the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design and Ashkelon Academic College – segregated men and women at the entrance to campus and on campus, including in the library and at Bar-Ilan even in the hallways. They also enforced “modesty rules” – usually against women only – breaching the council’s regulations.

The council applied no sanctions against the schools and sufficed with the institutions’ declarations that they had addressed the problem.

This time around there is no trace of the council's promise a few months ago that “separation will be conducted minimally” and that the gender-segregation arrangements are “merely suggestions and will not be enforced by the academic institution.”

A revolution in separation

According to Kalai, the lawyer representing the petitioners, the difference between the council’s two responses is “a revolution in the state’s perception of everything relating to separation, which clearly contradicts not only its previous positions but also court rulings.”

Until now, Kalai said, “the state argued that gender separation is an exception that can be approved only in exceptional circumstances. The new policy allows public bodies to regulate the public space in a way that directs men and women into separate areas, provides them with services on separate days, and even allocates separate campuses. All this comes on top of the declared discrimination in favor of Haredi men regarding scholarships and the ban on women teaching classes of men.”

He added that the new policy “takes us back decades to the period when state and private institutions thought they had the right to keep women out of the public eye and exclude them from full participation in the public sphere.”

As the council now admits – and no longer denies – various courses of study are not equally offered equally to men and women but rather depend on the decision of each institution, which “examines the demand for certain programs and their economic viability.”

The only research presented by the council to support separate gender tracks was a survey it commissioned from Asaf Malchi, according to which 80 percent of Haredim are unwilling to study in mixed-gender academic programs.

But according to Barak-Corren of Hebrew University, some of the questions in the survey were biased and mixed different variables; she said the survey was “simplistic and does not take into account significant factors,” while the report on key findings is “defective and biased.” The survey and the report based on it “cannot serve as a reliable basis for decision-making,” she wrote last week.

Malchi denied this but said a comprehensive study was still necessary, “and based on that the required conclusions should be drawn regarding the most desirable policy for integrating Haredim into academia.” As he put it, “it’s the CHE’s mission to examine the new findings and adjust its policies to the changing needs of the Haredi community.”

Members of the council plan to ask for a discussion on Barak-Corren’s findings.

In its official response, the council did not address Barak-Corren’s research, nor did it answer how it defines “voluntary” separation. “Since the establishment of the Haredi frameworks, the policy is that gender segregation is allowed in the classroom only,” it said.

“Based on this principle, the CHE allows separate days of study, as long as free access by both genders to the public spaces is maintained at all times. The CHE will intervene and prevent any case in which an institution imposes prohibited gender segregation in public spaces.”

It added: “Integration of the Haredim into academia is a national objective, and the CHE will continue to act to meet its goals.”