Israel's Attorney General Moves to Allow Sex-segregated Graduate Programs

The Haredi Knesset members 'know how much I try to apply their policies and those of the government in every issue,' Mendelblit was quoted as saying by an ultra-orthodox newspaper

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, September 2, 2019.
Ilan Assayag

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit is moving ahead on an initiative to introduce sex-segregated graduate study programs in certain disciplines.

The initiative, which was presented about six months ago by Prof. Yaffa Zilbershatz, chairwoman of the Israel Council for Higher Education’s Planning and Budgeting Committee, was harshly criticized by the finance and justice ministries and seemed to have been set aside. But now, according to a column in the Mishpaha ultra-Orthodox weekly, it turns out that Mendelblit has approved the initiative in principle.

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“It must be said honestly that in the recent term the government has been paying very close attention to the needs of the Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] community, both in policy and in the legal area,” a close associate of Mendelblit was quoted as saying.

“Every time a legal solution could be found for needs that were raised by ultra-Orthodox representatives – the attorney general was there to help,” the associate added. The attorney general had helped to advance sex-segregated undergraduate education, the column quoted Mendelblit’s associates as saying, “and now, in discussions of studies for master’s degree, there is an unequivocal opinion that it should be approved,” an associate said.

In response to a query from Haaretz, the attorney general’s office said that a few months ago “a request to consider gender-separate studies in therapeutic professions had been made,” and that “the attorney general had approved the initiative in principle, pending completion of background work and legal scrutiny.” It seems that the difference between the two versions – the one from the ultra-Orthodox weekly and the one given to Haaretz – depends on the audience, not the essence. Moreover, it seems that the “background work” still needed is to draw a target around arrows that have long ago left the bow.

The context of the interview with Mendelblit’s associates in Mishpaha was an article that had appeared a few days earlier in the ultra-Orthodox daily Yated Ne’eman, which harshly criticized Mendelblit’s opposition to a performance for men only sponsored by the Haifa municipality.

The performance was canceled following a petition to the Supreme Court by the Israel Women’s Network. “Just a week after the attorney general’s office published for the first time an opinion permitting separate cultural events – completely contrary to what had been up until now – such an assault comes?” Mendelblit was quoted as complaining in the interview. The Haredi MKs “know how much I try to apply their policies and those of the government in every issue,” Mendelblit said, called the criticism “brutal and personal.”

Mendelblit was referring to the legal opinion he published about two weeks ago that expands permission to local authorities to hold sex-segregated cultural events, permission that had previously only applied to religious events. He issued the opinion following the storm of protest over a gender-separate performance in Afula for the ultra-Orthodox.

The expansion of sex segregation in master’s programs is the main clause in a broader plan by Zilbershatz, which includes separate tracks for men and women of the national religious camp and drastically reducing oversight by the Council for Higher Education in Israel of gender separation and nondiscrimination against female students and teachers.

Individuals familiar with the program call it “a significant and broad change of policy,” which goes against High Court of Justice rulings and a report the government adopted against the exclusion of women. However, according to Zilbershatz, expanding sex-segregated studies is the only way to counter the slow growth in the number of ultra-Orthodox students.

The treasury and legal figures harshly criticized Zilbershatz’s plan, citing a lack of research that would justify such a significant policy change, especially at a time when the High Court is hearing petitions on gender separation in higher education.

Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber warned that the plan constitutes “broad and far-reaching permission to exclude women.”

It appeared that the criticism had put a stop to the plan, but now, Mendelblit’s “authorization in principle,” opens the way to expanded gender separation.

According to Yofi Tirosh of Tel Aviv University’s faculty of Law, who represents a group of academics that petitioned the High Court against sex segregation in academia, the article in the Haredi publication shows that “while the state claims that at the moment there is no expansion of the separation ... facts on the ground are being determined that exceed the wildest imagination of the founders of the Haredi programs.”

In the interview with Mishpaha, Mendelblit’s associates also discussed support for other areas of gender separation, including in the training program for Israel’s diplomatic corps. “It must be understood that in the attorney general’s office are quite a few people who don’t see eye-to-eye with these decisions. But from our [Mendelblit’s] point of view, where it’s possible to take Haredi lifestyle into consideration he is there with all his heart and all his strength.”