Israel Tells Planners to Maintain Strict Gender Separation in ultra-Orthodox Areas

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Devout ultra-Orthodox Jews take segregated steps in Beit Shemesh in 2017. The right-side of the flight is for men, the painted sign says, the left for women.
Devout ultra-Orthodox Jews take segregated steps in Beit Shemesh in 2017. The right-side of the flight is for men, the painted sign says, the left for women. Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen
Or Kashti

The Construction and Housing Ministry is advising the planners of new neighborhoods for the ultra-Orthodox community to include “modesty considerations” when designing public spaces.

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“Understanding the issue of modesty has significant implications for the community’s behavior and needs,” says a guide published recently. It details how the principle of modesty, which for Haredi Jews include the strict separation of men and women in most public spaces, affects planning.

The guide recommends designing commercial spaces to afford exposure to the street, “where public supervision can be found,” limiting places such as cafes, where people could mingle, and seeing to it that workplaces “preserve the needs of modesty.”

The guide is thought to be the first government recognition of the request of Haredi groups for “modest” behavior in public areas. A private Haredi research institute is a partner in the publication. The Housing Ministry said the guide is meant “to allow planners to plan appropriately for the benefit of the Haredi population too.”

Haredi women and men keep separate in the neighborhood of Romema, in Jerusalem, in 2012.Credit: Alex Levac

The writing of the guide began in 2016, and was done in cooperation between the ministry’s chief architect, Vered Solomon-Maman, and the Haredi Institute for Public Affairs. It begins by describing Haredi society and its institutions, detailing family, the different communities, sex segregation, education, community centers and unique characteristics of commerce and employment.

These chapters ignore the increasing strictness in recent decades of “modesty,” as well as criticism of it from within the community and from the outside. Instead, the guide accepts the current modesty requirements as a given.

According to the guide, “modesty and sex separation” are the signal characteristics of Haredi public space. From this derives the conclusion that limiting the possibilities of meetings between the sexes – at all ages and in all areas of life – “affect almost all aspects of planning.”

This is not just the separate educational system – in which every small group is recognized and has its own separate frameworks – but also shopping centers that are characterized by “spaces that allow social oversight and that do not create modesty problems, for example hidden niches or outside seating in cafes and pizzerias.” According to the Housing Ministry, busy commercial buildings meet the various criteria for modesty, through the use of planning that allows “social supervision.”

A sign in Mea Shearim, Jerusalem, in 2017.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

“Most Haredi women are employed according to their wishes in separate work environments,” states the guide, usually in the town they live in. But concerning the low car usage, it says it is possible that other factors influence employment patterns too: “According to the code of modesty in Haredi society, women are not expected to drive.” Similar aspects affect the location of sports facilities and their use, which require women to conduct sports activities in closed places, while men can do so in the streets, says the guide.

Based on these seemingly neutral principles in the opening chapters, the fourth and final chapter recommends planning principles for Haredi neighborhoods, including sex segregation from preschool.

The guide says the question of “modesty” is the first principle to take into consideration on planning commercial and employment areas. Stores should face the street, where widespread supervision exists throughout the day. Other recommendations are to limit service areas that encourage idle time, and to consult during the planning process with the accepted Halakhic authority for the target population.

When extremists from Jerusalem come to Haredi neighborhoods, one of their first requests is to remove the public benches to prevent men and women from being in the same place. "The Housing Ministry adopted the principles of gender separation,” said Nili Philipp, a religious social activist from Beit Shemesh. “I remember how Haredi women said at the time that this was too extreme a request. It is scary to discover that a government ministry has turned what was considered to be extremism into a new norm – and is cooperating with the supervision of women, when they go out to work or go shopping.”

An ultra-Orthodox family belonging to a sect that practices extreme modesty, in Mea Shearim in Jerusalem, in 2017.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

Research shows that separation between populations leads to extremism. The Housing Ministry is turning us into tribes,” said Dr. Eve Finkelstein, another social activist from Beit Shemesh.

The Construction and Housing Ministry said the guide “was not intended to change or set behavior in [the Haredi] community, but to reflect the consensus.”

The guide is not a compulsory planning tool, and was written based on hundreds of discussions with professionals in the field and representatives of the community – including many women. The guide relates to many aspects of life and not just aspects of modesty, which were brought up as an important issue for the representatives of the community in preliminary discussions, and the various recommendations were not intended in any way to “supervise women,” said the ministry.

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