Girls were told to sit at the back of the room and boys at the front during a Jerusalem Day event in the central Israeli city of Kfar Sava on Sunday.
The event, which took place at the municipal auditorium, was for 10th graders from both secular and religious high schools. The gender segregation was organized by teachers from the religious schools, with support from teachers from the secular schools.
Several students who attended the event told Haaretz that female students who tried to sit near their male friends were sent to the back of the room by their teachers.
Jerusalem Day marks the anniversary of the 1967 merger of East and West Jerusalem following Israel's capture of the former in the Six Day War.
The event was jointly sponsored by the municipality, the Education Ministry’s Jewish culture department and Zehut, an umbrella organization of groups that seek to deepen Jewish identity in secular state schools. It featured a performance by the Aspaklaria Theater, which bills itself as “a platform for Jewish theater.”
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The three participating schools were the secular Katznelson High School, the Harel religious girls school and Noam, a religious boys’ school.
“As soon as we entered the hall, the teachers separated the boys and girls,” a female Katznelson student said. “They told the girls to sit in the upper rows and the boys in the rows near the stage. There were some girls who tried to sit near the boys, but they moved them and told them to go to the back. The first rows were for boys only, even though there was a majority of girls.
“This segregation is infuriating,” she added. “I don’t think the religious students’ traditions should separate me from my friends.”
“It’s hard to understand how such segregation was approved by a secular school in a secular, cultured, enlightened city,” said the mother of a student. “I respect religious people’s lifestyle and expect them to respect mine, not to force anything on me or my family.”
A male student said that when he and his friends asked about the segregation, they were told, “We have to respect the religious schools’ request.”
The female student added that many of the secular students saw no problem with the separation, and the same went for the teachers, who didn’t intervene.
“But the hall was big enough that they could have seated the religious students separately without us having to separate our boys and girls as well,” the male student said. “It’s strange that our teachers cooperated with this.”
Another student said that two or three girls managed to sit with the boys, but they were the exception. “It was embarrassing,” he said.
Some of the Katznelson teachers “argued with each other about the segregation, but apparently decided in the end that they should give way to the religious people,” he added.
The play was about an Israeli living in Berlin. Just before his wedding, a friend from Israel shows up, and the two discuss the importance of Israel.
“They tried to forcibly impart how important it is to live in Israel rather than Berlin, where people have almost no family and friends,” the male student said.
“The message I got from the play was that anyone who emigrates from Israel loses his friends and family and is sad and miserable,” the female student agreed.
The speakers before the play were almost all religious, the students added. “One speaker said we have to build the Temple,” one recalled, “while another sought to give free advice: If you want something serious to happen, you have to pray for 40 days at the Western Wall. It felt very out of place.”
Ilai Harsegor Hendin, a Kfar Sava city councilman, said the segregation amounted to “gross contempt for the secular lifestyle and an especially shocking message for the girls – essentially, they were pushed to the rear while the boys sat in the front rows. This is blatant religious coercion, and if no warning bells have sounded for anyone in the system yet, it’s time for the municipal education system to do a thorough housecleaning.”
Both the Education Ministry’s Jewish culture department and Zehut are active in trying to strengthen Jewish identity, as religious Zionists understand it, in secular schools. Last year, the ministry’s support for such activities reached an all-time high of 22 million shekels ($6.2 million).
Until recently, Zehut was headed by Itai Granek, who sits on the Habayit Hayehudi party’s central committee and is close to the party’s leaders, Education Minister Naftali Bennett and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked. A few months ago, he was replaced by Israel Ben-Pazi, a former senior official of the National Union party, which runs on a joint ticket with Habayit Hayehudi.
The Kfar Sava municipality said the segregation wasn’t ordered by the municipality, but by “a teacher who exercised faulty judgment.” The municipality’s only order, it added, “was to seat the students by school. We’ll clarify the regulations on this issue.”
The Education Ministry declined to comment.
Three weeks ago, Haaretz reported that the ministry tried to separate boys and girls at a sports day for fifth and sixth graders, citing respect for religious participants’ feelings. But that decision prompted half the elementary school principals in Tel Aviv to announce that their schools would boycott the event, and the municipalities of Ramat Gan and Givatayim followed suit.