Gender Segregation at Israel's Universities Spreading to Whole Campus, High Court Warns

Justices criticized the Council for Higher Education for turning a blind eye to segregation not confined to classrooms ■ 'You want to create demand for segregation,' director of ultra-Orthodox campuses told

File photo: Segregated graduation ceremony at Jerusalem's ultra-Orthodox College, April 6, 2011.
Michal Fattal

The Israeli High Court of Justice criticized the Council for Higher Education this week for letting gender segregation spread from classrooms to public areas on campuses, with some institutions holding separate study days for men and women.

According to the council, gender segregation is allowed only in courses for ultra-Orthodox B.A. students, and only inside classrooms.

“This segregation seems to be expanding in a way that cannot be accepted,” said Justice Hanan Melcer, the panel head.

>> Read more: Israel’s creeping gender segregation ■ Dress codes and separate entrances: Gender segregation in Israeli universities expands beyond the classroom

Justice Anat Baron said segregation had spread to public spaces and libraries. The council was turning a blind eye to this and not confining the separation to classrooms, she said.

The court asked the council how it was enforcing the regulations on colleges and universities. The state’s representative was at a loss for words for a moment and looked helplessly at the council’s planning and budgeting chief, Prof. Yaffa Zilbershats, who was sitting in the front row.

About six weeks ago, the council told the High Court there was nothing wrong with various aspects of segregation – for example, separate study days or separate campuses – on condition that it wasn’t “forced.”

Now, in view of the slower-than-expected rise in the number of ultra-Orthodox students, the council is considering expanding the segregation.

Minutes of the council’s committee for oversight and enforcement suggest that academic institutions have been violating the regulations confining gender segregation to classrooms, and the council hasn’t imposed sanctions.

Among the institutions that have violated the regulations are Bar-Ilan University, the Bezalel Academy of Arts and Design, the Jerusalem College of Technology and the Achva, Gordon, Ashkelon, Rupin, Hadassah and Ono academic colleges.

Ono Academic College’s violations include admitting ultra-Orthodox students without a matriculation certificate or an equivalent diploma, putting up a barrier between male and female students and using separate entrances in an M.A. program, accepting more students than permitted, and granting degrees to students whose achievements are below the standard that exempts them from English studies.

File photo: The ultra-Orthodox campus at Ono Academic College, January 17, 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

Ono Academic College held studies on separate days for men and women and set days on which only women or men were allowed to use the library. It also put up discriminating signs around the campus. Also, many students who attended the segregated classes weren’t ultra-Orthodox at all.

A member of the oversight committee said the college interprets the council’s thinking as it “understands” it. In April 2017, the council suspended the discussion on new study programs at Ono Academic College due to other violations, only one of which pertained to admitting ultra-Orthodox students against the regulations. In view of the recently discovered violations, the council is considering extending the suspension.

At two meetings in January and March 2018, the heads of Ono Academic College promised to rectify the situation. They said violations were caused by “our attempt to balance access for the ultra-Orthodox and keeping to the rules and professionalism.” This apparently involved shifting the responsibility for the illegal barrier onto the students and saying the college’s management merely cooperated with them.

At the end of the debate in January, the committee chairman and deputy chairman of the council, Prof. Ido Perlman, said he was under the impression that Ono Academic College was undergoing a “positive process.” At the next meeting he led the decision to lift the only sanction that had been imposed on the college and let it submit new study programs for approval. One committee member suggested warning the college that it would be punished if further violations were found – but the move was rejected.

A month later, in April, Ono and other colleges were summoned to the oversight committee because of gender segregation on the ultra-Orthodox campuses’ public areas. This time too the committee sufficed with the college’s declarations that it had “fully rectified the flaws that were found.”

“Were there sanctions imposed for not keeping the segregation regulations?” Justice Melcer asked. “With our first sanctions we try to do it in a pleasant way,” the state’s representative said.

In court this week, an Ono lawyer and director of the ultra-Orthodox campuses, Dr. Haim Zicherman, argued against the council’s restrictions, saying they led to a reduction in the number of ultra-Orthodox students.

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

“Men and women roam in the public space. We see this as a great difficulty: It prevents quite a few ultra-Orthodox students from attending academic studies,” he said. He suggested that the deeper the segregation, the larger the number of ultra-Orthodox students.

His approach casts doubt on the sincerity of the college’s apology from a few months ago, and on its commitment to keep to the regulations.

“You violated the council’s decision, you were put in your place,” Melcer replied to Zicherman’s complaints. When the latter argued that the definition of “ultra-Orthodox” should be made more flexible, Justice Baron said: “You want to create demand for segregation.”

Ono is but one example. Officials in the council believe that the slow growth in the number of ultra-Orthodox students requires expanding segregation beyond the classrooms. Hints of this can be found in the council’s last statements to the court, including a warning that “the need to update the policy will be examined” to achieve the goal of 19,000 ultra-Orthodox students in three years, compared with 12,000 currently.

“We’re not considering reducing the segregation,” a source familiar with the situation says. The pressure from the extremely moderate growth in the number of ultra-Orthodox students, as well as from an expected report by the state comptroller, could lead the council to expand segregated studies to other groups that say segregation is a “cultural need” and segregate public spaces on campus.

Expanding segregation and opening segregated classes to other groups are fast and simple ways to increase the number of students in programs intended for ultra-Orthodox students only. They are less complicated than investing in pre-academic courses to narrow the study gap, helping ultra-Orthodox students in mixed courses or raising the academic standard in separate courses.

The court’s criticism was aimed at making clear to the council that it must reexamine the scope of the segregation and the justification for it.

The oversight committee’s minutes show how difficult it is to control segregation once it is officially recognized and how lenient the council is. It turns out, for example, that in a building of the Jerusalem College of Technology, there is no separation between high school and academic studies.

File photo: The ultra-Orthodox campus at Ono Academic College, January 17, 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

“Our interest is to make studies accessible to ultra-Orthodox people, but not at the expense of lowering the academic standard,” one committee member said.

The academic colleges Achva near Kiryat Malakhi and Gordon in Haifa opened programs for ultra-Orthodox students without a permit, and a large number of institutions are violating the ban on “modesty rules” and exclusions in the public sphere. No punishment was handed out in any of these cases.

Officials in the council say they handle every violation that is discovered. But as far as is known, the council hasn’t discussed the annual work program of the oversight and control division.

In some cases the segregation seems to slip under the radar. Sources familiar with the situation say Ashkelon Academic College opened a segregated course for men in social work two years ago. About 20 religious-Zionist and ultra-Orthodox men from the region’s communities are enrolled in it.

Segregated courses are also held for ultra-Orthodox men and women.

The Ashkelon college responded that “the social work faculty offers studies for some 700 students; ultra-Orthodox and others. The choice is made by students via online registration. Since the absolute majority are women, some groups can be homogenous, but not all. This is not deliberate segregation.”

Last year the council allowed academic institutions to violate various procedures and did not punish them if they promised to correct their ways. The council refused to say how many institutions did this or what violations they reported.

“Integrating the ultra-Orthodox in higher education is a first-rate national, social and economic goal. In view of the fact that the rise in ultra-Orthodox students was smaller than expected, further ways to achieve the goal will be examined,” the council said.

“The council’s oversight and enforcement unit is acting to enforce the regulations and prevent violations among all the academic institutions, including the plans to integrate ultra-Orthodox students.”