Israeli High Court Slams Expansion of Gender Segregation in Colleges

Justice Melcer says the entire world accepts that separate isn't equal ever since the desegregation ruling of Brown vs. Board of Education in the middle of the last century

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The Haredi college in Jerusalem, photographed in 2013.
The Haredi college in Jerusalem, photographed in 2013.Credit: Emil Salman
Or Kashti

Israel's High Court of Justice criticized the Council of Higher Education on Tuesday for claiming that gender segregation in Haredi academic programs is limited to the classroom and slammed the government for cooperating with the educational institutions that fail to let female faculty teach men.

“If women do not teach in men’s classrooms, then in spite of the declarations of the council, the employment law’s principle of equal opportunity is not being upheld,” Justice Uzi Vogelman said. The head of the expanded five-justice panel, Hanan Melcer, said that since the Brown v. Board of Education ruling in the United States, the entire world has accepted the principle that separate is not equal.

The case involves a number of petitions filed in 2016 and 2017 by academics headed by attorney Dr. Yofi Tirosh against the existence of separate programs., and the Kohelet Forum, which wants the court to remove all restrictions against gender segregation. But the council has expanded the scope of gender segregation since these petitions were filed. 

Melcer suggested that the court would rule on the issue within a few months. 

Tuesday’s session addressed a rise in the number of exceptions made that include students not necessarily descibed as Haredi in the segregated program. 

At first, the idea was to gradually introduce non-Haredi students to the work-study program. Justice Yosef Elron remarked how “it seems that over time, the creep becomes permanent. It seems that this is not the end of it. Do we not have a slippery slope here? This is a beginning where we don’t see its end point.”

“These are small programs, they add a few students,” said attorney Shosh Shmueli, representing the state.

In response to justices’ questions about a lack of possibilities for women to teach in classes with male students, Shmueli said that the total of male and female faculty shows “that there are enough women in the balance with the men, such that female faculty are not left without work.”

במרכז ד"ר יופי תירוש בבג"ץ נגד הפרדת נשים גברים, ב-2017Credit: אולבייה פיטוסי

Vogelman said in response that it is not convincing to point at global data on the number of women faculty on staff and irrelevant to count all the country’s universities.

Melcer said the segregation had a spillover effect,  at first it was in the classroom, then it spread to the laboratories and the library – where the government said there would not be separation and now there are designated days for women and others for men. He also questioned how voluntary the segregation was, as the state claimed.

An attorney for the petitioners said the council “does not have the authority to violate the rights of a person without their explicit agreement.” He also said that the claim of a “cultural right” to segregated classrooms  is inappropriate, comparing it to honoring the right of a “Jew not to see an Arab or an Ashkenazi not to see a Mizrahi person.” 

Ariel Ehrlich, a lawyer representing the Kohelet Forum, said the court had been cautious in the past about striking down all forms o f segregation “based on the understanding that there are significant percentages of people who embrace this lifestyle and they need to work it out. There are manifestations of separation in which it can be wonderful,” Ehrlich said in court. 

“It is humiliating that they teach the subject I dedicated all my life to in a class in which I can’t teach just because I’m a woman,” said professor and lawyer Frances Raday of the Concord Institute at the College of Management, who submitted an amicus curiae brief. “It’s looking at all the achievements of the 20th century for the advancement of women in the public space and in workplaces – and turning them back.”

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