Israeli Ultra-Orthodox Says Universities Should Offer Separate Male, Female Classes

MK Yakov Margi from ultra-Orthodox Shas party says barrier to higher education must be removed for Haredi students

MK Yaakov Margi (Shas) in December 2015.
Emil Salman

Universities should hold separate classes for men and women studying for master’s degrees, the chairman of the Knesset’s education committee said on Wednesday.

At a meeting of the Knesset Education, Culture and Sports Committee, MK Yakov Margi (Shas) said the barrier to higher education for ultra-Orthodox Jews (or Haredim) who want to study for master’s degrees must be removed.

He called on representatives of the Council for Higher Education who attended the session to declare their support for the move.

“I understand the legal difficulties, but if you speak out unequivocally about the rights of the ultra-Orthodox in academia, the State Prosecutor’s Office will fall in line too,” said Margi.

The increase in the number of ultra-Orthodox students participating in higher education is not enough, he added.

Two months ago, the education council approved an experimental program to open gender-separate classes at Israel’s universities for bachelor’s degrees, in order to encourage greater enrollment of ultra-Orthodox students. Until now, the Haredim were taught almost exclusively on separate campuses.

A document prepared by a team of experts also recommended allowing students who are not defined as ultra-Orthodox to join gender-segregated programs, and to expand gender separation in colleges to include advanced-degree programs. The education council did not make a decision on the issue at the time.

The document conceded that the model proposed for gender-separate classes in the universities could be harmful to both male and female non-Orthodox students, but that there were many advantages – both social and academic – that needed to be taken into consideration.

One of the most controversial issues is that women lecturers will not be allowed to teach male-only classes. Opponents have also said gender separation is harmful to the pluralistic and egalitarian character of academic life.

This is one of the reasons why the ultra-Orthodox programs have been restricted to bachelor’s degree programs, since those who decide to continue for higher degrees are expected to study in the regular frameworks.

The education council’s decision in May angered many academics, with senior faculty organization leaders at a number of universities speaking out.

They sent a letter to Education Minister Naftali Bennett protesting the expansion of gender-separate programs for ultra-Orthodox students. “The attempt to prevent female faculty members from teaching men will harm the freedom of occupation of all academic faculty,” the letter stated.