Gender-segregated Event at Tel Aviv University Draws Criticism, Triggers Reform

The university says it noticed a clause on sex separation for a Chabad event too late to cancel, a mistake it pledges to avoid in the future

The invitation to the Chabad event at Tel Aviv University.
Zalman / Ha'aguda Lema'an Hageula Ha'amitit Vehashlema

Chabad held a gender-segregated event Monday in an auditorium at Tel Aviv University, sparking criticism from many staffers at the institution that says a new provision for such rental contracts will prevent the mistake from happening again.

One senior official at the university called the decision to rent the hall to the ultra-Orthodox group a “mistake.” Smolarz Auditorium is the university’s main event hall and one of the biggest in Tel Aviv, but Monday evening much of it was reserved for men only.

The event marked the 70th anniversary of the last Lubavitcher rebbe’s ascension to the leadership of Chabad. An organizer said 900 people attended, about one-third of them women, but they were relegated either to the balcony or the sides of the hall.

Tuesday morning, a Chabad website said the fact that the event took place “at the university in Tel Aviv” gave “special meaning” to an essay by the rebbe saying that the task of Jews today is to usher in the Messiah by preparing a suitable dwelling for him in the physical world.

But university staffers complained that by renting the hall to a Chabad-affiliated group, Hageula – the Association for the True and Complete Redemption, the university had legitimized gender segregation. “The university has an important role in the battle against separation, not just within academia, but in wider contexts,” one staffer said.

The senior university official agreed with this criticism. He said the rental contract with Hageula stated that the event would be segregated, but the university noticed this clause only shortly before the event began, too late to cancel it.

He stressed that it was a private event and the university’s only role was to rent the hall, but he admitted that “this was a serious mistake that’s now being investigated.”

“The university opposes any gender separation, in class or at events on its premises,” he added. He also promised that the mistake wouldn’t happen again, saying the mishap had prompted the university to draft a provision for future rental contracts designed to prevent a recurrence.

University CEO Gad Frank, responding to a complaint from the Israel Women’s Network, wrote that “the university intends to make sure from now on, using the various tools at its disposal, either when a rental contract is signed or after it’s signed, that the auditorium won’t be rented out to hold events that raise suspicions of illegal discrimination, exclusion or violations of equality.”

Bentzi Frishman of Hageula said the decision to hold the event at the university “didn’t stem from any desire to provoke, but from the hope of connecting different worlds and uniting the extremes of the Israeli spectrum. This is the best unity.”

Gender segregation, he added, was necessitated by the nature of the event. It wasn’t “a mistake, as the university claims, but something welcome.”

The Tel Aviv municipality already bans gender segregation at any event in the city held in a public place. Two weeks ago, at a conference on legal responses to the exclusion of women, municipal legal adviser Uzi Salman said the city added this provision to its bylaws following another Chabad event organized by Hageula 18 months ago.

And in 2014, the cabinet adopted a report on the exclusion of women that also bars any public body from organizing a public event involving gender separation, even if the target audience is ultra-Orthodox or the event includes religion. “The fact that most of the people expected to attend may prefer separation isn’t a justification for employing it,” the report said.

Elinor Davidov of the Israel Women’s Network welcomed the university’s pledge to avoid a recurrence.

“Tel Aviv University has joined the list of institutions and agencies that have realized that gender segregation harms women,” she said. “We applaud the university for deciding, even if belatedly, not to allow events with gender segregation on its premises, out of an understanding that no one can tell women and men where to be and how to act in public places or at public events.”