Israel's Universities Plan Gender-separate Classes for ultra-Orthodox

Critics say this would increase inequality on campus, and would be damaging to female lecturers

A class at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem's Givat Ram campus.
Emil Salman

The Council for Higher Education in Israel is planning on opening gender-separate classes at Israel’s universities to encourage enrollment of ultra-Orthodox students.

Such classes currently exist only at colleges, university preparatory programs and a special campus at Bar-Ilan University.

University heads have been divided over the plan, as have the members of the council, who are to vote on the matter next month.

A document prepared by a team of experts, presented to the council before Passover, also recommended allowing students who are not defined as ultra-Orthodox to join gender-separate programs, and to expand gender separation in colleges to include advanced-degree programs.

The document concedes 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 should be taken into consideration.

The model would “greatly reduce the damage to equality caused by the very establishment of separate academic frameworks for Haredim [ultra-Orthodox], and prevents ‘islands’ of separation,” the document said.

However, opponents of the plan told Haaretz that opening separate classes for Haredim would lead to greater inequality on campus, and would be damaging to female lecturers.

“When the council established the program to incorporate the Haredim in academic education, it repeatedly declared that gender and sectoral separation were foreign to academic studies, opposed to their essence, and impairs equality. But the exception was justified as a temporary measure in light of its important goals, that it would limited to bachelors’ degrees only and to clearly Haredi students, with no compromises,” Prof. Orna Kupferman, of the Hebrew University’s School of Computer Science and Engineering, and former vice rector of the university, who was responsible for the program incorporating Haredim, told Haaretz

“The second five-year program now on the table abandons this temporary nature and the apologetics for the compromises with the academic essence,” she said.

One of the biggest bones of contention in the program is that women are not allowed to teach male-only classes. Opponents have also said that the separation is harmful to the pluralistic and egalitarian character of academic life.

In the past, the Council for Higher Education denied that female lecturers were barred from teaching on ultra-Orthodox campuses, but now it has become the norm in the programs and it seems the council has accepted it.

The council is also divided with regard to expanding the student body of the special programs for the ultra-Orthodox, most of whose participants are on scholarship, to include non-Orthodox participants.

According to the document, the council’s position is that up to 10 percent of the candidates for the special programs may be non-Haredi. Opponents say that relaxing the definition of who is considered ultra-Orthodox will create creeping gender-separation as students from a national religious background seek to enter the program.

The definition of Haredi at present is anyone who studied from ninth to 12th grade in an institution classified as Haredi by the Education Ministry.

Right now, gender-separate programs are only offered for bachelors’ degrees. But the document said limiting gender-separation to bachelors’ degrees was only a temporary decision and that “there is a possibility, if the need arises, to revisit this policy in the years to come, especially with regard to advanced degrees in the therapeutic professions, which cannot be practiced without a master’s degree and for which there is a critical need in the Haredi community.”