Analysis

Israel's Attorney General Is Allowing the Gender-segregation Tsunami to Sweep Over

Avichai Mendelblit's court opinion that publicly-funded, gender-segregated events are acceptable in 'special circumstances' may create a precedent that no one can stop

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, August 7, 2019.
Emil Salman

The Supreme Court closed a loophole last week that had paved the way for local governments to force gender segregation in public, during publicly financed events.

The Supreme Court corrected the mistake of Nazareth District Court Judge Attif Ailabouni, who had granted the petition of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party and overturned a prior verdict forbidding the separation of men and women at a concert for the Haredi community in Afula.

However, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit caused damage when he issued a statement on “special circumstances” that would enable expanding gender segregation to non-religious events.

>> Read more: The many humiliations of sex segregation | Opinion ■ Segregation halted, for now | Editorial

Advocates of sex segregation will try to take advantage of any opportunity. In recent years, gender segregation and discrimination against women have been expanding into various aspects of public life. This is seen on army bases where women are marginalized; on academic campuses where female “modesty supervisors” check the length of skirts; in the civil service, which has cadet courses for men only; in funeral ceremonies, where women cannot mourn or stand with their families; in signposts forbidding women to walk on certain sidewalks, while men police their clothing, applying ever harsher modesty rules, occasionally with curses and spitting. Bus drivers refuse to let on a female passenger in shorts, or don’t allow women to board, claiming there’s “room for men only.”

This is merely a partial list. The struggle for woman’s place in public - and for Israeli society - is in full force.

Mendelblit told the Nazareth District Court he plans to hold an “urgent” debate on when “a municipality may hold a segregated event for the ultra-Orthodox public.” This goes against a report by former Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, whose recommendations the cabinet endorsed in 2014.

Perhaps Mendelblit will hold this discussion in the next few days, in view of the Haifa municipality’s decision to sponsor an event exclusively for men at the end of the month. The change, which appears to have been taken without any real debate, has immediate, devastating repercussions that go far beyond cultural performances. It reeks of surrender to pressure by the religious parties.

The attorney general’s statement raises fears that the decision to expand sex segregation beyond religious or private events has already been made, and what remains is to iron out how it will be implemented. Is it legitimate to hold these events first for men and then for women? Can a cultural event that opens with a prayer be viewed as a religious event, where men and women can be separated? What will be the size of the mixed areas beside the segregated ones? How high will the separation boundary be and will it be completely opaque? Will there be “equal” seating arrangements or will the stage face mainly the men’s section, as Noa Shpigel reported in Haaretz about Wednesday’s event in Afula, and as has been the case in similar events in the past?

Over and over, the promises to “segregate with equal conditions” give men advantages while pushing women to the margins. This is what happened with the separate courses for Haredim at universities, where the setting, lecturers and class choices are biased toward men.

Mendelblit’s statement, which toes the line of the extreme standard demanded by the religious parties, is expected to impact not only events for the religious and ultra-Orthodox public. The moment this standard is established, it will become legitimate at events for secular audiences as well. Segregation will become the new normal.

The discussion on segregation must not be confined to a cautious draft on when it can be permitted, all the while mumbling something about the need to protect women. This is a matter of principle. One can only imagine the public reaction to a polite request to the Ethiopian or Russian communities, or to Arabs, or disabled people, not to enter certain offices due to someone’s “worldview.”

There are certain “values” that must not be respected. Such separation fixates on the differences between various groups and perpetuates a sense of inferiority among those excluded. Those claiming sex segregation is necessary because women “tempt” men are advised to take a cold shower and stay home.

In overturning Judge Ailabouni’s ruling to permit the segregation, Supreme Court Justices Uzi Vogelman, Yosef Elron ruled that Ailabouni’s statements – that the Women’s Network’s appeal discriminated against Haredi men and that segregation was necessary for the ultra-Orthodox population to enjoy the publicly funded event – were out of line.

This isn’t merely a technical issue. The law says that sex separation is a severe breach of equality, especially in the public sphere.

The High Court of Justice’s ruling against the ultra-Orthodox radio station Kol Barama, which was fined for keeping women off the airwaves, proved that “cultural” claims are inadmissible as an excuse.

The Supreme Court upheld the earlier verdict issued by Nazareth District Judge Yonatan Avraham in the wake of the first petition. Avraham ordered the security guards and ushers to prevent any sex segregation at the Afula event.

“Anyone at the event is allowed to be anywhere in it, according to his judgement, and the ushers or security guards may not do anything to separate people according to their gender,” Avraham wrote. His verdict makes a clear distinction between forced and voluntary separation. Contrary to the claims of ultra-Orthodox officials and their secular assistants that this is “secular coercion,” the ruling doesn’t force mixed seating, but seeks to ensure that segregation isn’t pushed on anyone.

As Haaretz reported a few months ago, between 2016 and 2018 this kind of segregation was forced on the public in over 200 events financed by the Negev and Galilee Development Ministry, headed by Shas lawmaker Arye Dery.

The attorney general’s 2013 report says that a ministry or any public body or authority may not organize a public event that allows for any gender segregation. The exception is “an event that is essentially a religious ritual or a religious ceremony.” Wednesday’s event, like a large majority of the segregated events Dery is funding, was not that. As far as Dery is concerned, there’s no doubt the state must recognize and support customs that infringe on people’s equality in the public sphere. In his statement to the court, Mendelblit has moved closer to Dery’s position. The expected result is a segregation tsunami.