Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit has banned gender-segregated refresher courses for drivers, overruling the approval granted for them by the Transportation Ministry years ago.
His ruling follows a lawsuit filed against the ministry and Yeshivot Bnei Akiva Center for barring women from registering for courses listed as being only for. Mendelblit did, however, rule that independently-organized groups may request separate single-gender courses.
The ruling, which was made two weeks ago, was submitted a short time before the incoming transportation minister, Bezalel Smotrich, takes office. Smotrich is a supporter of gender segregation.
The segregated refresher courses came to light in 2017, following women’s complaints about difficulties registering for defensive driving classes.
The Yeshivot Bnei Akiva Center said it had the necessary approval for gender-segregated courses. While the precise scale of the gender segregation is unknown, most courses had been intended mostly for men, rendering them outright discriminatory against women.The same-sex courses were apparently canceled several weeks ago.
In his decision, Mendelblit said the law prohibits discrimination in the provision of products and services or in irrelevantly distinguishing between men and women, in addition to other groups. The law permits segregation only under two conditions: if failure to provide a single-sex product or service will deny it to specific people, and if the segregation is directly linked to the type of product or service being offered. Mendelblit added an additional consideration: avoiding damage to the wider public by making segregation seem natural.
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The attorney general said that gender-segregated courses can also cause harm by drawing irrelevant distinctions between men and women.
It’s unclear whether his ruling will stand up for long in a government racing to normalize gender segregation in the military, the workplace and academia.
The Kan public broadcaster recently reported that in the course of coalition negotiations, Likud accepted United Torah Judaism’s demand to legalize single-sex services by amending the law to declare that such practices are non-discriminatory.
Mendelblit consulted with top legal officials about the issue in April.
Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber wrote in an opinion last year that there was no substantive justification for gender separation in the drivers’ refresher courses since there was no sensitivity issue from an ultra-Orthodox standpoint. Her opinion was based on a report issued by the attorney general’s office and adopted by the cabinet in 2014 about the fight over denying women the right to appear or perform in public.
The Transportation Ministry said it had approved single-sex courses due to demand, and that only a small number of the courses were held in this format. But senior Justice Ministry officials rejected this argument, saying the number of the courses was irrelevant, and that the discussion was about their legality in general. As soon as the state cooperates with the demand for gender separation, it nullifies the court ruling and also creates demand for such courses.
The debate about on issue arose after Haaretz reported on a lawsuit filed by Meytal Lamour after she couldn’t registering for a preventative driving course close to her home in September 2017 because they were listed as “for men only.”
“This is encouraging news at a time when repeated instances of gender segregation are taking place,” said Lamour. “I hope that women will continue to fight and not be silent in the face of such injustice. Only by standing in the way of such action can we advance toward real equality.”
Ultra-Orthodox voices have criticized Mendelblit’s decision. “This isn’t about discriminating against women, but aiding women who want separate classes which are not provided for them,” said Haredi lawmaker Uri Maklev.
The Israel Women’s Network said the decision shows they should win their case, alongside Lamour, in court: “Like the instances of gender separation on buses and in academia, gender separation has never been seriously examined in cases where it is deemed as necessary to ensure the participation of ultra-Orthodox men and women. After other ministries have rejected gender separation, it is time for the Transportation Ministry not to cooperate with efforts to distance women from the public sphere.”
The Transportation Ministry said it is “holding defensive driving classes for the entire population and for mixed groups. At the same time, in accordance with the attorney general’s decision, the ministry is permitted to offer defensive driving courses to registered groups that have organized independently.” The ministry did not specify the criteria for opening an independent group.