From Segregation to Exclusion: In Israel, Discrimination Against Women Is Making a Comeback

'Over the last two or three years, demands for women's exclusion are on the rise again, even in communities that aren't ultra-Orthodox'

An ultra-Orthodox man walks up a flight of stairs to a sign asking men to ascend on the right and women on the left, Beit Shemesh, Israel, November 16, 2017.
Emil Salman

Ultra-Orthodox rabbis in Modi’in Ilit ruled this week that the first four rows of seats on public buses should be reserved for men. Women may not sit there, “even with their husbands.” They must go to the back of the bus.

This was just the latest of many examples that seem to point to a resurgence of discrimination against women in Israel. Some government agencies are wavering in their commitment to fighting such discrimination, and Supreme Court rulings meant to end discrimination are not being implemented. Observers warn of the dangers of ignoring the steady drip of erosion of equal rights.

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A partial list of incidents and examples from the past two or three years: the erection of a wall to separate men and women in the funeral hall of the public cemetery in Atlit; the absence of female voices in public service announcements commissioned by the government advertising agency and aired on ultra-Orthodox radio stations; sex segregation in defensive driving courses and in training courses for ultra-Orthodox civil servants; sex segregation at public libraries in Haredi neighborhoods; the introduction of sex-segregated programs at colleges and universities; the disappearance of women from billboards and other public advertising in Jerusalem; the fencing-off of a path in Zichron Yaakov, in order to keep women at a distance from an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva; signs in Beit Shemesh demanding that women dress modestly, which are proliferating despite a court order prohibiting them.

Four or five years ago, one person familiar with the issue recalled, the Attorney General’s Office published a harsh report on the problem, the cabinet adopted it and there seemed to be progress “even in parts of the Haredi community. But over the last two or three years, demands for women’s exclusion are on the rise again, even in communities that aren’t ultra-Orthodox. And this is happening with virtually no counter-reaction.”

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Eleanor Davidov, the director of the Israel Women’s Network’s women’s exclusion project, agreed that there is a “dangerous, creeping trend toward reducing the public space for women.” Sex segregation isn’t even accepted by all parts of the Haredi community, she said, yet it is “becoming accepted in government offices, city halls, the army and even the private sector,” and their efforts to be considerate of the ultra-Orthodox minority have come “at women’s expense.”

The problem is exacerbated by many government agencies’ lax enforcement of rules against excluding women, such as the Interior Ministry’s refusal to order municipalities to bar sex segregation at public events.

A good example of the problem could be seen at the funeral of graphologist Anna Koren in Atlit in July 2016. “At the entrance to the funeral hall stood a woman in a head covering separating women from men,” recalled one of Koren’s friends, Miki Dror. Women were told to go in one door, men another. A wall with a window separated the men’s and women’s sections. “I was in shock,” Dror said.

Koren’s body was put in the men’s section, which her daughters weren’t allowed to enter. The rabbi conducted the funeral with his back to the women’s section. Yoram Nitzan, another friend, termed it “humiliating and degrading.”

Sex-segregated funeral halls violate both the attorney general’s report and Religious Services Ministry regulations. So Dror and Nitzan filed suit, represented by the Israel Religious Action Center, and won an out-of-court settlement. In April 2017, the Atlit religious council demolished the wall. It also agreed to pay the plaintiffs 5,000 shekels ($1,400) in compensation and post signs saying sex segregation during funerals is prohibited unless explicitly requested by the family.

But legal action doesn’t always work so quickly. In August, Orly Erez-Likhovski, a lawyer, complained to the government advertising agency about the lack of female voices in PSAs broadcast on Haredi radio stations. She did not receive a response, which was issued only after Haaretz contacted the agency.

The agency said it cannot force a radio station to air a PSA if the station refuses. But Erez-Likhovski says that because the Supreme Court has ruled that Haredi stations cannot exclude women, the agency is breaking the law.

In September, the Israel Women’s Network complained to the Transportation Ministry about sex-segregated defensive driving courses. It has yet to respond.

In Zichron Yaakov, a paved shortcut between Hahita and Hazayit shortened the route to the local cemetery, until it was blocked, a few years ago: first with a low fence, then a higher one, then a fence reinforced with metal panels.

City councilman Efraim Tzuk said the culprits were ultra-Orthodox residents who sought to keep women from passing a yeshiva located a few dozen meters from the fence. Tzuk says the fence violates both the city’s master plan and municipal bylaws. But his proposal that the city council discuss the issue was rejected.

“You want to run the whole city by secular principles?” one Haredi man retorted this week. “It won’t work. We live here, and this barrier won’t bother anyone.”

The city council responded that anyone can enter Hazayit Street or any other street.

In Beit Shemesh, the modesty signs outrage many women who are Orthodox themselves, though not ultra-Orthodox. Despite the court order barring them, another such sign appeared on a main street just a few weeks ago: “Men are requested to go up the stairs on the right, women on the left.” And on the other side of the street, one of the signs the court explicitly ordered removed — “Women are requested to come in modest dress” — is still there.

“There’s an almost automatic expectation that we should waive basic rights in the name of accommodating the ultra-Orthodox,” said one Orthodox activist, Nili Philipp. “But that accommodation is always one-way, and the other side exploits it. The symbolic meaning of the modesty signs is excluding women from the public square and controlling them.”

Another, Eve Finkelstein, said the signs’ appearance roughly coincided with the onset of physical violence — throwing stones and dirty diapers or spitting at women whose dress was deemed immodest. She herself was assaulted and complained to the police, but the case was closed for “lack of public interest.” And her experience was not unique.

But a third, Alisa Coleman, tried to find a silver lining. “We no longer have to explain our struggle all over again each time,” she said. “At least the conversation has changed.”