Saudi Arabia received a heady dose of positive press coverage this week after boosting its global image by implementing its new laws permitting women to drive. Israel, on the other hand, began the week with a blow to its image as a progressive place for women in the Middle East.
Obviously, the two countries aren’t directly comparable on any level when it comes to the treatment of women – or anywhere else in the realm of personal freedom. It was just a few weeks ago that Tel Aviv Pride Week hosted a celebration of liberated sexuality that couldn’t even be discussed in a government anchored in fundamentalist Islam the way Saudi Arabia is, let alone publicly expressed on the streets. Israeli women are free to live their lives in ways their now-mobile Saudi sisters can only dream of.
And yet, a troubling backward step was taken Sunday when a Tel Aviv district court judge ordered Mayor Ron Huldai to permit an ultra-Orthodox event on Monday night, in which men and women were separated by a 165-foot-long (50-meter) barrier in Rabin Square – the heart of what is supposed to be Israel’s most liberal city.
Judge Kobi Vardi ruled that Huldai must allow the gender-segregated event to take place, rejecting the arguments of women’s groups who contended that the partition represents the exclusion of women in a public place and, therefore, violates the law.
Israel Religious Action Center legal director Orly Erez-Likhovski, who has argued several key gender-segregation cases, called the Tel Aviv ruling a “setback” that failed to recognize that gender separation is as unacceptable as racial separation.
“The fact that we still have to explain that a gender-segregated public event with a mechitza (divider) in the center of a city – whether Tel Aviv or Jerusalem – violates principles of basic democracy is very frustrating,” she told Haaretz.
How did a liberal city like Tel Aviv get into this mess in the first place? Huldai really doesn’t have anyone to blame but himself and his city officials, who made the initial decision to permit the event last March.
It wasn’t the first time: A similar gender-segregated event for the True and Complete Redemption Association – a messianic splinter group of the Chabad Lubavitch organization – for its celebratory “Messiah in the Square” event, designed to celebrate “faith, joy, redemption” on the birthday of a venerated rabbi, had been held in the center of Tel Aviv in 2016.
This time, though, opponents of gender segregation drew a firm line in the sand. As the event – billed as having “special places for women,” a code for separation – approached, the feminist Israel Women’s Network appealed to the municipality and Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber to stop the gathering from happening where women would be kept off the stage and behind a fence.
The municipality announced last Monday that in light of the protests and legal arguments, it had decided to withdraw its approval and said the event couldn’t go forward if men and women were separated. What’s more, Huldai – properly repentant, and probably with an eye on upcoming elections – vowed that he would no longer give permission to hold gender-segregated events in Tel Aviv.
Victory celebrations were premature, though. A few days later, the Chabad-affiliated group appealed to the court and on Sunday Vardi ruled that Jewish law as observed by the group “should be respected.”
The judge harnessed the language of multiculturalism, chastising Tel Aviv Municipality for its about-face. He ordered it to once again allow the group to hold its event and separate men from women – which they said was necessary for them “under Jewish law” as they interpreted it.
Any civil rights threat, Vardi said, was mitigated by the fact that only part, not all, of the Rabin Square event would be gender-segregated. Furthermore, separation between the genders would not be enforced and, in theory, passersby could walk in whatever part of the square they wanted. In other words, voluntary segregation.
All of this sounds reasonable in a microcosm. But the drama is playing out on a wider stage where women in Israeli society are fighting against powerful forces that have threatened to make gender segregation an acceptable cultural norm in multiple environments: on public buses, public libraries, public universities, government-funded academic institutions, and even the military.
There is a legitimate fear of dragging Israel backward into discriminatory fundamentalist practices – which must be respected in the private religious sphere, not in the public square of a democracy.
The slippery slope argument had no better illustration than a news story that hit the headlines the very same day the Tel Aviv court made its decision: Yet another tale of an El Al plane whose takeoff was delayed after ultra-Orthodox men refused to take their specified seats next to women. Their objection forced two female passengers to move, to accommodate demands rarely made on any airline besides the Israeli national carrier.
This issue was supposed to have been resolved in 2017 when a Jerusalem court ruled that asking a passenger to move seats based on gender is a form of discrimination. El Al subsequently announced that flight attendants were not permitted to facilitate seat-switching to accommodate a refusal to sit next to the other gender. (One of Israel's largest high-tech companies, Nice, announced Monday it would bar its employees from using El Al until it ceases the practice.)
Every time the Israeli government’s stamp of approval is put on the practice, as in the Rabin Square case, it emboldens the extreme sectors of the ultra-Orthodox community in settings like El Al planes. In both cases, they damage the image of a city, a company and a country that all want to be seen as moving forward into a promising future, not sliding backward into a regressive past.
“I think one is definitely connected to the other,” said Erez-Likhovski. “And it’s very disturbing when people who deem themselves liberals say that gender separation must be permitted because if you don’t, you are excluding the Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] sector. What they are saying is that we need to be tolerant of intolerance.”
Despite her unhappiness over the judge’s ruling in the Tel Aviv case, Erez-Likhovski said the incident does have a silver lining. “The Huldai announcement, as far as I know, is the first time a municipality clearly announced a policy regarding segregation. Hopefully it will set an example for other Israeli cities and offer some optimism for the future,” she said.
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