The Israeli government is funding a civil service training course for ultra-Orthodox applicants in which men and women are kept completely separate, in defiance of a court ruling.
The course, which will open in December, is run by a private organization with state funding. The operator is apparently trying to downplay the gender separation, which isn’t mentioned in its advertisements or registration forms. Still, men and women will be learning in separate groups at different hours.
This violates a labor court’s order that the government must make it clear in advance if a course is sex-segregated. The Israel Women’s Network said the course “undermines equality between the sexes” and violates various court rulings requiring gender segregation to be “reduced to a minimum.”
Following Haaretz’s inquiries, Social Equality Minister Merav Cohen – whose ministry is one of the course’s donors – promised to reconsider the project together with women’s organizations and produce “a more balanced policy.”
The course, titled Basics of Public Administration, is meant to prepare ultra-Orthodox men and women for jobs in either the national government or local governments. It will meet once or twice a week for four months in Bnei Brak and Jerusalem. So far, 120 people have applied, of whom 20 men and 20 women will be accepted. It has a budget of 375,000 shekels ($117,000), but it’s free to participants.
The course is being fun by Ma’aseh, a subsidiary of the Rashi Foundation, one of Israel’s most influential nongovernmental organizations. For years, the foundation and its subsidiary organizations have furthered government policy, mainly in the fields of education and welfare, by taking advantage of the flexibility in funding it enjoys and the state lacks.
Aside from the Social Equality Ministry, the other agencies whose logos appear in advertisements for the course are the Interior Ministry and the Civil Service Commission.
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Yossi Malka, CEO of Ma’aseh, said the decision to provide training “adapted to the ultra-Orthodox community” stemmed from the desire “to integrate population groups that aren’t represented in the civil service. It’s clear to us that the ultra-Orthodox won’t register for a course that includes both men and women. It simply won’t work.”
Yet in the same breath, Malka noted that other, similar courses have been operating for three years that include “ultra-Orthodox people who don’t have a problem mixing men and women, including non-Jews.”
“We decided to give young men and women a choice – to participate in a mixed, diverse group or to be part of a group that’s homogeneous in terms of gender,” he added. “I’d be happy if the separation didn’t exist, but I do allow it.”
Nevertheless, the necessity of separation is called into question because only 20 percent of the next round of training courses for the ultra-Orthodox will be separate-sex, down from 100 percent in 2018. This change came due to a legal battle by the Israel Women’s Network that resulted in the state promising the labor court that training for both sexes would be equal. It also promised to publicize the courses’ sex-segregation in advance, so that their legality can be challenged.
Following that court case, separate-sex courses were limited to personal workshops that “require personal disclosures to the group,” according to an opinion by the Attorney General’s Office. Sources familiar with the issue said that every syllabus was reviewed in detail to determine if gender separation was necessary.
But judging by conversations with people involved in the new course, it doesn’t seem a similar review was conducted this time. Instead, a private organization and three government agencies simply accepted the idea of complete separation without questioning whether it was really necessary.
Michal Cohen, director of the Rashi Foundation, said she isn’t an expert on the new course, but in any case, “We aren’t the state, but a philanthropic foundation.”
The Civil Service Commission insisted that its only involvement in the course is “providing professional material to familiarize [participants] with government ministries.” The Interior Ministry similarly said that it merely acceded to the Social Equality Ministry’s request for material relating to local governments, and that it was told the course complied with court rulings.