Israeli Civil Service Cadets Program for ultra-Orthodox Separates Men and Women

Next session supposed to have equal number of men and women studying in two separate courses

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“Influencers” program for Haredi candidates for the civil service, Israel, January 2020.
“Influencers” program for Haredi candidates for the civil service, Israel, January 2020. Credit: Brachi Spitzer

Twenty women and 25 men studying in the second session of the program for ultra-Orthodox civil service cadets will be divided into two separate, parallel courses – one for men and one for women. The government stresses that this is a significant improvement compared to the first session, in light of a promise that 20 percent of the activities in the course would be conducted jointly.

On the other hand, the Israel Women’s Network warned that from the partial figures published by the government, it transpired that the gender separation has become self evident even for the civil service. Secret negotiations took place between the sides in recent weeks, in an attempt to reach an agreement that would prevent legal action, but they ended without results. After the recent battles surrounding the exclusion of women, this is an additional front that is clarifying the issue of integrating ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, Israelis in the public space.

Haaretz Weekly Ep. 58Credit: Haaretz

According to the plan, in the next session of the program there is supposed to be an equal number of men and women who will study in two separate but parallel courses. According to informed sources, the division between the genders during the various activities was determined based on the nature of the activity: Frontal lectures will take place together, but workshops that require processing and internal discussion, and involve work in small groups or personal exposure – will take place separately.

The workshops include one for “creating a personal vision,” as well as one for writing government position papers. Another component of the program is the formation of an accompanying team, with the participation of various government representatives, which will examine the possibility of increasing the joint activity already in the next course.

On Wednesday the Israel Women’s Network suggested to Civil Service Commissioner Daniel Hershkowitz that he conduct a bridging process regarding the extent of separation in the program, although the idea was rejected in the past. At the same time, the leaders of the cadet course are accusing the feminists of attempting to torpedo the step. “It’s impossible to transition quickly from a situation in which the training for women began only at the end of the men’s course, to joint lessons for both sexes that are designed for the mainstream Haredi community,” said a source. “It’s simply unrealistic. There’s a need for a gradual and confidence-building process.”

On the other hand, the executive director of the Israel Women’s Network, Michal Gera-Margaliot, says that “There are no clear and transparent indexes for the question of what can be mixed and what requires separation. The government’s starting point is that “a course for Haredim involves gender separation.” She says, “It’s dangerous to accept such an assumption ahead of time.”

The first group of the program – “Influencers” program for Haredi candidates for the civil service and local government – opened early in 2018 for men only. At the end of that year a course for women opened as well. The petition filed by the women’s network against the blow to equality has been discussed in various courts – including the Jerusalem District Labor Court, The National Labor Court and even the High Court of Justice – accompanied by a bitter harsh public debate.

In the last ruling in the chain, Judge Rachel Barag Hirshberg adopted the government’s promise to operate the next group of the program (or any other future course) for men and women at the same time, and to hire them for positions that “are open equally to both sexes.” These promises were obtained through agreement between the sides, and without court intervention.

The rest of the ruling laid the foundation for a new debate. Prior to the next session of the program, according to the ruling, the government will publish the draft of the course to be conducted with gender separation, an accompanying study about the first group, and a legal opinion by Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber. This was done so that the women’s network and other organizations, such as the Women’s International Zionist Organization or the Reform Israel Religious Action Center, would be able to decide whether to turn to the courts again, this time regarding the constitutionality of gender separation.

Temporary and partial

This week, at a conference on gender separation held by the Class Action Clinic at Tel Aviv University, Zilber discussed the Influencers program as an example of instances in which “the legal analysis leads to the conclusion that there is justification for accepting the phenomenon temporarily and partially.” However, she warned that the terms “temporary” and partial” would also require “interpretation and a battle, so that they won’t turn into a permanent situation.” In such cases, she said, there is need for “a type of limited flexibility” that “via delicate balances dulls the blow created by the exclusion of women.”

Due to “the difficulty for a program that trains people for work in the civil service, which is shared by men and women, to be conducted in complete separation,” said Zilber, “there was prolonged work with the relevant government ministries, in order to create a program where there is a smaller and more proportionate undermining of equality.” They did so, she said, by “designing a mechanism that will not enable the spillover of the separation to the civil service itself, and ensuring internal examination mechanisms to examine the possibility of transferring part of the separated content to a monitored mixed format.”

“It’s tempting to say that we’ve made progress, and maybe later on the joint part of the program will be expanded, but in the end the situation is simple,” responded Dr. Yofi Tirosh, one of the leaders of the fight against the exclusion of women, at the conference. “Those accepted to the Influencers program have a bachelor’s degree and are considered civil servants already from the first day.” After the government promised that there would be no separation after BA studies, Tirosh told Haaretz, “It is repeatedly moving the line – to a separate master’s degree, and now to professional training courses as well. It’s nice to believe the promises that separation is a temporary means for the purpose of integration, but the reality proves that it’s only spreading.”

As a result of the government’s promise to inform the Israel Women’s Network of the details of the second session of the Influencers program, there have been several discussions in recent months, whose participants included Zilber, Commissioner Hershkowitz and members of the Kemach Foundation for Haredi professional advancement. In light of the changes introduced into the program, the government representatives asked the women’s network to “give the step a chance.”

However, according to Gera Margaliot, “The government refused to disclose details about the program’s content and gender composition. In spite of that, we proposed a variety of other solutions for full integration of Haredim: earmarking positions in the regular courses, or individual processing in small [and unisex] groups, so that most of the content would be taught jointly. In addition, we proposed consensual bridging. The government rejected all the compromise solutions.”

“The plan of the course requires mediation for the Haredi community,” explains an informed source. He says, “We have to beware of a situation in which the Haredim will suddenly say that it’s a mixed program.” The source added that “In the choice between mixed studies and no studies at all, the absolute majority of the Haredi community – men and women – will choose the second option. The fact is that they didn’t participate in the other training programs, while there is a waiting list for the Influencers. The program enabled a bridge to the civil service, under conditions acceptable to the mainstream Haredi community – not those who would have become integrated in the first place in a mixed format.”

The source also said that graduates of the first course “didn’t demand separation at work, not even the most conservative men. In the Haredi world there’s a huge difference between training for work – which involves strict separation – and the world of work itself, in which working together [with women] may be considered inevitable, but they accept it.” However, another source said that one of the graduates of the course actually asked to work in a separate room – but his request was denied.

The real question is what is the Israel Women’s Network’s alternative solution to the growing Haredi public that considers separation in training that includes personal issues a central value,” adds Avraham Yustman, the deputy director of the Kemach Foundation, which is a partner to the program. “How can it be that Zilber, the high priestess of the battle against the exclusion of women, accepts the plan [80 percent separately and 20 percent jointly] – and they are presenting difficulties? The liberal and enlightened public has to understand that the program is an insane sacrifice for Haredi society.”

The words of Yustman and the other source, who is accompanying the Influencers program from up close, reflect a common belief – without separation – in academe, in the army or in training for the civil service – the “genuine” Haredim won’t come. However, a study conducted by Dr. Neta Barak-Corren of the Hebrew University in Jerusalem, which was published in Haaretz about a year ago, questioned this consensus, at least in connection to studies in the separate tracks for Haredim in the academic world. A strict list of rules of modesty that was in the past by the Modi’in Illit municipality to its employees, which includes a series of restrictions against women and their work, raises questions marks about Haredi consent for joint civil service as well.

Moreover, according to informed sources, it is possible that some of the Haredi candidates did not register for the regular training program not because it is not separate, but because they don’t meet the threshold conditions. “Instead of adapting an acceptance threshold for Haredim in the regular course, the government decided on an abbreviated course with different acceptance conditions,” says one of the sources.

According to someone who is familiar with the various training courses, as opposed to the Civil Service Cadets Program, which is designed to create a managerial cadre, the Influencers course is designed to vary the manpower in the civil service, by integrating college graduates into key positions, but not necessarily administrative jobs. “The government’s theory of ‘gradual integration’ is baseless,” says Dr. Tirosh. “There is no grounds for the hope that women will be brought back gradually, after [the government] began to embrace the most extremist organizations, which require that women be kept totally out of sight.

“The correct gradual process is to integrate the moderate forces, who are willing and able to manage without sweeping separation.” She says that “The facts prove that when the government doesn’t allow separation, the Haredim are willing to become integrated even without it. That’s what happened at [the Haredi] Kol Barama radio station, which today gives voice to women despite its strong opposition in the past, that’s what happened in the buses where enforced separation was prohibited.”

“Work in the civil service is joint work for all extents and purposes, and that’s how it has to be from the first moment,” says Gera Margaliot. “Our proposals to conduct talks openly and to find ways to implement the course are not being answered. To our regret, it seems that the decision to create a program with gender separation is a political decision, which stems from external pressures from Haredi organizations, rather than from professional considerations. The government, which failed in the first place in dealing with the subject, is becoming entrenched in an approach that is harmful both to the Haredi candidates and to the general public.”

The Civil Service Commission did not reply to the questions of Haaretz and said that they would reply directly to the Israel Women’s Network.

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