Mixed-gender swimming is as serious as incest or violating the Sabbath, a lawyer representing a group of residents of the West Bank settlement of Kiryat Arba told the High Court of Justice at a hearing on Sunday. The lawyer was arguing for the court’s rejection of a petition that several hours a week be set aside for mixed swimming in the settlement’s only pool. Currently there is strict gender separation at the pool, with males and females using the pool at different times.
The High Court petition seeking the slots for mixed swimming was filed several months ago by a group of residents who claim that the current ban on mixed swimming at Kiryat Arba’s pool constitutes extreme religious coercion. The justices hearing the case hinted that it would be preferable for the local authority, the Kiryat Arba Local Council, to suggest a compromise acceptable to all involved.
"There are ultra-Orthodox and religious people in Kiryat Arba that for them a mixed-gender pool is worse than scarifying your life, t’s worse than desecrating the Shabbat. It's like living in a pigsty," one of the residents told the court.
The petitioners represent between 15 and 30 percent of Kiryat Arba residents, including secular traditional and religious members of the community. Representatives of the local council and another segment of the community’s residents oppose the request in the petition. A proposal to set aside mixed “family” swimming hours had also been raised several years ago but all efforts to find a compromise on the issue have failed, primarily due to the opposition of those with stricter religious views.
At Sunday’s hearing on the petition, Justice Yael Willner asked why setting aside mixed swimming hours would bother those who seek gender separation for themselves. Tamir Yihye, a lawyer representing the local council said the council had consulted with rabbis who responded “unequivocally” that if there are to be mixed hours, they would advise the public not to use the pool at all. Yihye said that the comment was from Rabbi Dov Lior, a national religious rabbi who takes a strict stance, but added that a large number of residents had signed a petition stating that they would cancel their pool memberships if mix swimming hours were instituted.
The justices had difficulty accepting that. Justice Isaac Amit called it “the weakest argument possible” and suggested by comparison that vegetarians may be hurt by the sight of someone eating meat. “Due to such hurt, should I ban eating meat?” he asked.
Aviad Hacohen, who is one of the lawyers for the petitioners, said the justice’s pointed comments at Sunday’s hearing “speak for themselves.” Tolerance, he said, “is not a one-way street.” It is appropriate, he added, for opponents of mix swimming to respect the desire of Kiryat Arba residents to swim with their families and not impose the opponents’ own lifestyle on them. “Religious coercion of this kind harms not only the fabric of life in the community but also fundamental constitutional rights such as equality, human dignity and religious freedom,” he claimed.