Supreme Court Overrules Okay to Gender Segregation at Afula Event, but Too Late

The Supreme Court overruled a lower court’s decision to permit gender segregation at a government-organized concert in Afula - but the event was already taking place

The gender-segregated event at a municipal park in Afula, in northern Israel, on Wednesday, August 15, 2019.
Gil Eliahu

The Supreme Court overruled a lower court’s decision to permit gender segregation at a government-organized concert in Afula, handing down its ruling while the concert was being held with segregation in place following the Nazareth District Court’s ruling earlier in the day to permit it.

The separation at Wednesday night’s concert in Afula began at the entrance to the park, where a guard told women to enter through one gate and men through another. But it wasn’t clear why, since just past the gate, everyone started mingling at the stands selling popcorn and toys.

Nazareth District Court Judge Attif Ailabouni had proposed a solution in which the event was separated into wings: One mixed seating area, one for women and one for men.

Though Mayor Avi Elkabetz had told the court earlier that day that all the tickets had been sold, there were quite a few empty seats on the men’s side. The main amphitheater was divided between men and women; on the grass above, a few families sat together.

The gender-segregated event at a municipal park in Afula, in northern Israel, on Wednesday, August 15, 2019.
Gil Eliahu

When Interior Minister Arye Dery opened the event, he was greeted like a king. So was Elkabetz, who spoke next.

“I ask the men and women here, did anyone force separation on you?” Dery asked rhetorically. Rather, he declared, the Israel Women’s Network, which sued to stop the separation and “which barely represents itself, decided to force Afula residents to be the way it wants them to be. Where does this arrogance come from?”

When he mentioned Yair Lapid, one of the heads of the Kahol Lavan party, as “the only one who came out in favor of” banning separation, the crowd booed.

>> Lapid is right, Israel’s coddling of the ultra-Orthodox community will lead to disaster | Analysis

Elkabetz said he was “embarrassed to say that we’ve held only one event for the ultra-Orthodox community; you deserve more. We demand that there not be secular coercion.”

When singer Motti Steinmetz came onstage, he thanked God, Dery and Elkabetz. In fact, everyone who came onstage praised Dery and Elkabetz. They were undoubtedly the stars of the evening no less than Steinmetz.

Another singer preceded his song, the psalm “Shir Hama’alot,” with an emotional speech about how Jews kept their Judaism even in Auschwitz.

Moshe Vilboshvitz, an Afula resident, asked a Haaretz reporter, “Why is this discrimination against women? My wife hasn’t sat next to men since age two and a half, and I don’t sit next to women. The singers won’t come to a mixed event.”

S., from a nearby moshav, agreed. “There was discrimination here against the religious community – one performance out of 360 that were free for all residents,” she said.

>> Read more: The minister of separation | Editorial 

There were a few disturbances during the evening, including when Tiberias Mayor Ron Kobi, a secular activist, arrived and was quickly removed by the guards after an uproar by some members of the audience.

Additionally, two elderly secular couples said ultra-Orthodox concert-goers surrounded and pushed them until policemen came to protect them.

“The moment we heard there was mixed seating, we came,” said Elka Ben-Haim, who attended with her husband.

“But then the event manager came and forced us to sit there, behind the fence,” added her friend from Herzliya, who also came with her husband, pointing to a small fenced-off area on the side with a few chairs. “We didn’t agree, so we came here. We came to enjoy ourselves, and look what a provocation occurred.”

Nevertheless, they said, some ultra-Orthodox people later apologized for how they were treated.

At the height of the evening, the emcee urged the audience to restore the gender separation, which had apparently disappeared in the area right in front of the stage while one singer was leaving it.

“Motti wants to come on!” the emcee yelled. “Guards – please maintain the separation! He can’t come on this way!”

But a few minutes later, Steinmetz returned to the stage.

On Wednesday morning, just before the lower court hearing, Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit filed an opinion in which he explained that, in special circumstances, municipalities can hold gender-segregated events for the ultra-Orthodox public.

Mendelblit’s position hints at a possible broadening of permissions for holding events where men and women are separated, even surpassing those defined by government decisions on the subject.