Hebrew University Student Union Approves Gender Segregation at Its Events

Segregation will show 'consideration and inclusion' toward religious female students, union says. Decision 'hurts everyone who holds dear gender equality,' law professor says

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A concert at Jerusalem's Hebrew University in 2010.
A concert at Jerusalem's Hebrew University in 2010.Credit: Noam Sharon

The student union at the Hebrew University has decided to allow the segregation of men and women at events it organizes. At such events, partitions would be erected in some areas, with another area left for mixed-gender participation. The union says that this will enable religious students who want segregation to participate, without offending their religious beliefs. “This is a continuation of our approach, which attempts to show consideration and inclusion,” says the union.

According to the university’s rector, Prof. Barak Medina, university authorities will need to approve such segregation on campus. “Our overall policy remains unchanged,” he said. “University events remain unsegregated, by gender or community. Segregation gives a hurtful message of exclusion, which is discriminatory.”

Sources at the student union say it will be hard to oppose segregation after it was officially recognized. A few years ago, a tumultuous session at the student union of the university’s law faculty ended with a decision not to allocate a separate area for female students.

Under a banner of “integrating religious populations” and “fostering egalitarian spaces to the extent possible,” a conference held by student unions last week approved by a large majority a proposal to operate separate areas for men and women, in addition to a common area. In explanatory comments on this decision, it was noted that there had been recent requests to enable participation at events by creating separate areas for men and women. Female students said that without this, they could not take part in events, which would reflect the fact that the student union did not represent them too. The document states that allowing such segregation at events such as Students’ Day or at graduation celebrations is “an important step on the way to establishing links between different groups and the student union.”

According to the decision, establishing separate areas would enable men and women to dance separately. Setting up such areas would be based on technical considerations (such as limiting the number of participants), as well as on examining the demand for such segregation before each event. The union promises that if such areas are established, they will not be located in a central area, there would be no enforcement at entry points to these areas, and gender equality would be maintained. Past experience shows that at publicly organized events in which gender segregation was instated, these principles were not adhered to. Other clauses stipulate that the character of events would not be altered, and that no events would take place at which there was only a segregation option. “This is not a precedent for segregating people in a public space, but a showing of consideration and an establishment of links between unrepresented groups and the union,” says the document.

The agreement enabling the establishment of segregated areas for men and women contradicts a 2016 resolution taken by the law faculty’s student union, which stipulated that no barriers would be erected between men and women at the faculty’s annual ball (this was a separate student union). Then too, the issue came up after religious female students requested a separate area for dancing, so they could take part as well. The request was criticized by students and faculty, and the issue of segregation was not raised again since then. In contrast to the earlier occasion, the present decision mentions the erection of two separate areas for both genders.

Prof. David Enoch from the Hebrew University’s law faculty criticized the student union’s decision. “Segregation impacts the flavor of an event and gives a clear message regarding the place of women in the public sphere,” he says. “One should suggest to anyone arguing that this is a trivial matter, showing consideration for a weak minority, to consider a situation in which some of the area would be allocated to Jews only, or only to straight couples. Gender segregation at events, even if only partial, hurts everyone who holds dear gender equality. ‘Consideration’ is always one-sided, and it’s disappointing to see students, most of whom are apparently liberal, again falling into the trap laid by that mendacious rhetoric.”

Senior university faculty expressed their discomfort with the student union’s decision, but noted that this was an autonomous body. According to rector Medina, “this was a decision in principle that did not determine its ways of implementation or the events at which it would be operated. If and when the union asks to implement the decision at campus events, the university management will have to approve it. This issue has not been discussed yet.” The university says it does not interfere in and is not a partner to decisions taken by student unions.

The student union says that different events will be adapted to the needs of religious students, which will enable the entire student body to participate. They added that each event will be evaluated separately, and that students who do not want segregation will not be affected.