National Union of Israeli Students Objects to Deepening Gender Segregation

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File Photo: The ultra-Orthodox campus in the Ono Academic College in Kiryat Ono, Israel, April 17, 2008.
File Photo: The ultra-Orthodox campus in the Ono Academic College in Kiryat Ono, Israel, April 17, 2008. Credit: Dan Keinan

The National Union of Israeli Students on Sunday came out against a new plan to extend the segregation of men and women in academic institutions.

The plan calls for changes that would ease the criteria that allow gender-based segregation, with the opening of separate graduate programs and a dramatic reduction in the oversight of the Council for Higher Education on programs for ultra-Orthodox students.

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According to the union’s head, Shlomi Yehiav, “The proposal crosses red lines on its way to funding separate education systems, based on gender and sectors.”

Students are joining the harsh criticism of the proposal voiced by senior officials at the finance and justice ministries. The new plan is being spearheaded by the head of the council’s Planning and Budgeting Committee, Prof. Yaffa Zilbershats.

In recent discussions, Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber has warned that the significance of the proposed changes is “the granting of extensive and far-reaching permission to exclude women,” which will be demanded not just by the ultra-Orthodox, but by other groups that prefer segregated studies, such as national-religious Jews. According to different sources, Zilbershats announced that she did not accepted the justice ministry’s position and was asking for a meeting with Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, apparently in an attempt to bypass Zilber. The main points of the new plan were revealed in Haaretz last Thursday.

A steering committee at the Council for Higher Education that is dealing with increasing the number of ultra-Orthodox students was expected to hold its first discussion of the new plan on Sunday. A document explaining the opposition of the student union says that in contrast to current policies, the new plan “does not provide a balance between the need to provide equal opportunities for ultra-Orthodox men and women and the extensive infringement of equality and human dignity, leading to gender segregation and the exclusion of women in public spaces used by male and female students, as well as by administrative and academic staff.”

“This proposal disrupts the balance between ultra-Orthodox students and the rest of the student body” says Yehiav. “Its principles are contrary to agreements and balances we reached after lengthy negotiations on this topic only two years ago, in May 2017. We have no choice but to object to the majority of the proposal’s clauses.”

Student representatives claim that “there has been much pressure over the last year, demanding to widen the current definition of people entitled to study in the segregated ultra-Orthodox programs, adding secular people who have adopted religion and graduates of religious institutions who have taken core subjects [such as English and math]. This will lead to expanded gender segregation and to a different mix of students, which will negatively impact the original plan of increasing accessibility for ultra-Orthodox students.”

Including a new category of students will leave the ultra-Orthodox at a disadvantage, say student representatives, leading to a larger number of dropouts. They say that there is no support for Zilbershats’ claim that many groups are left out by the current definition of suitability, which is based on the high school students attended.

Student reps warn that “recognizing segregation as a cultural need will make it difficult for graduates to integrate into the job market after graduation. The program could actually become a hindrance to finding employment, missing the realization of its intended objective.”

Student representatives add that opening these programs to “born-again” students, could “remove any obstacle to demands for gender segregation by anyone claiming cultural considerations. This opens the door to future demands for segregation in academic institutions, followed by state institutions and the workplace.”

Senior officials in the treasury and justice ministry are critical of Zilbershats’ plan. Treasury representative Ido Sofer said that changing the definition of who is suitable for these programs, such that only cultural considerations remain, will lead to other sectors demanding special educational programs, depending on origin, nationality and gender. Zilber said, “You can’t artificially increase the number of people entitled to join these programs by turning to populations that don’t meet the criteria.”

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