In Backtrack, Israel to Go Soft on Inclusion of Women in Public Sphere

Under pressure from ultra-Orthodox, attorney general agrees policy should be 'more suited' to religious way of life

Ultra-Orthodox women walking with children in Jerusalem in March, 2017.
Olivier Fitoussi

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit has come to an agreement with heads of the religious and ultra-Orthodox parties to soften the Justice Ministry’s policy on the inclusion of women in a meeting Wednesday, so that it would be “more suited to the religious and ultra-Orthodox way of life.”

At the meeting, Habayit Hayehudi lawmaker Bezalel Smotrich, Interior Minister Arye Dery and United Torah Judaism lawmaker Moshe Gafni threatened to advance legislation that would codify the religious public's right to hold gender-segregated events. Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked backed their position.

In the end Mendelblit agreed to formulate a policy that will less stringently interpret the 2013 government decision on the matter. All in attendence also agreed that there would be no public statements on the issue, so as not to disrupt the implementation of the new policy.

Following considerable publicity of a series of incidents involving issue of women's exclusion from the public sphere, such as women being banned from Haredi radio broadcasts and the ban on ads featuring women on buses, then-Justice Minister Tzipi Livni and then-Culture Minister Limor Livnat decided to take on the issue in 2013.

The attorney general set up a committee of jurists that formulated recommendations, which were adopted by the cabinet. Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber was tasked with implementing the recommendations.

Zilber was vigorous in her enforcement approach, angering the religious parties. For example, last year, when Haaretz revealed that a pre-Yom Kippur prayer gathering in Rabin Square was to feature only male singers, Zilber told Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai that the city should not have issued a permit for the event, which was eventually canceled due to the controversy.

That same summer Zilber instructed the Jerusalem municipality to include women singers in a public prayer event, ordered a divider between men and women removed at a second Simchat Torah event and even reprimanded local authorities for maintaining separate beaches for men and women.