Scope of Gender-separated College Programs in Israel to Grow

Proportion of college students in these programs will increase from 10 to 15 percent, Council of Higher Education decides

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Ultra-Orthodox students at the Drachi Sarah school in Jerusalem, September 19, 2012.
Ultra-Orthodox students at the Drachi Sarah school in Jerusalem, September 19, 2012.Credit: Michal Fattal

The number of students who may be accepted to gender-separated higher education programs – even though they do not meet the official definition of ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) – will increase from 10 percent to 15 percent, the steering committee on Haredi affairs of the Council of Higher Education decided on Wednesday.

These students are allowed to enroll in the gender-separated academic programs even if they do not meet the official criteria for being considered part of the Haredi community. The reason given is that other groups in the Haredi community have the right to gender-separated programs, even if they do not meet all the criteria.

The decision, which the full council is expected to approve in the near future, was made at a time when the numbers of Haredi students in academia has stopped growing, and while the High Court of Justice is hearing a petition on the issue. This will mean a further, creeping expansion of the separation between men and women in academia. The new criteria make clear the gradual change within just a few years in the justification for the separation: From an emphasis on educational difficulties that are possible to measure and possibly reduce – to a demand for a cultural right that is hard to deny.

Before the meeting of the steering committee this week, the Council of Higher Education asked Dr. Gilad Malach, the director of the Ultra-Orthodox in Israel program of the Israel Democracy Institute, to submit his opinion on the issue. Malach has advised the CHE in the past. The document, which Haaretz has obtained, addresses the question of “Who is a Haredi,” which is the basis for the decision on who the gender-separated academic programs are intended for.

Ultra Orthodox students gesture as they pray during a reading class at the Kehilot Yaacov Torah School for boys in Ramot neighbourhood in Jerusalem June 24, 2010.Credit: RONEN ZVULUN/ REUTERS

In such a case, it is impossible to make do with just self-determination as the way to identify who is Haredi. This is because there are economic incentives, social pressure and different acceptance criteria, which can lead people who are not necessarily Haredi to claim that gender-separated studies are critical for them – and for the relevant organizations to also consider them as such. The scandal over the numbers of Haredi soldiers drafted into the military is a good example of how this is not just a theoretical problem.

Malach notes that various government authorities use different methods to define who is Haredi, but what is common to all of them is that they are based on the school where the candidate (for college, military, etc.) studied when they were of high school age. Those considered Haredi are only those who went to a non-state school under Haredi supervision.

In 2017, the chairwoman of the CHE’s planning and budget committee, Prof. Yaffa Zilbershats, led the discussions on the second five-year plan for integrating Haredim into academia.

During the discussions, supporters of gender separation – the Haredi and religious supporters as well as some of the institutions that conduct these programs – claimed that the accepted definition was too narrow: It did not include Haredim who studied in places that were not under Haredi supervision, those who had become religious at a later stage and foreign students who wanted to study in Israel is such programs. It was decided to grant the institutions flexibility to accept up to 10 percent of their students who do not meet the strict criteria. This week’s decision shows that it is hard to satisfy the thirst for gender separation. From a decision in principle made nine years ago, according to which “the institutions may also accept [students who are] exceptions at a declining rate until its termination,” nothing remains.

Malach said that the largest group among those “exceptions” who do not meet existing acceptance standards are those who have become newly religious. But these are people who studied in regular state high schools, which teach the core curriculum, and in most cases boys and girls studied one alongside the other. In other words, the justification to allow them to study separately today is not linked to learning difficulties – but is only a result of their desire to for separation for religious reasons. This is just another brick in the wall of cultural justification – and support for setting a relatively extreme standard.

Malach recommended setting criteria for determining who would be considered an “exception” and be accepted “through the back door,” but instead it was decided to leave this decision to the institutions conducting the programs, under the council’s supervision.

File photo: Ultra-Orthodox men demonstrating against the draft bill, Bnei Brak, Israel, 2018. Credit: Moti Milrod

A source involved in the matter said there was no urgency to change the existing policy, but for whatever reason – whether out of fear of not meeting their target numbers of Haredi students or because of external pressure – Zilbershats was in a hurry to change the criteria. Some people will benefit from increasing the gender separation, it is not just “accessibility” or “diversity” of higher education, said the source. It is also not acceptable to change the policy in the midst of a five-year plan, “which has already been criticized by the justices of the High Court,” he added.

But another source involved called it a “reasonable decision,” which would affect only a few hundred students – at least for now. In fact, much more extensive expansions of the gender separated programs were under consideration.

“If the Council of Higher Education does not stand fast against the pressure and set strict standards as to who is able to study in the separates programs, without a doubt there will be erosion, and before they notice – most of the students there will not be Haredim,” said Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg, a former Knesset member and chairman of the council when the first five-year plan on integrating Haredim into academia was approved. Raising the number of “exceptions” admitted is a “sign of retreat, which the other side has understood very well – and encourages those who are trying all the time to circumvent the rules,” added Trajtenberg.

The Council for Higher Education said: “Our vision is to provide equal opportunity to the entire spectrum of the population to acquire an education, especially for groups that are under-represented – and according to this we are taking action. The CHE and the planning and budgeting committee are formulating policy to make higher education for Haredim accessible, and to update [this policy] in coordination with the relevant government bodies.”

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