Sex Separation at Jerusalem Conference Attended by Government Officials

Following a complaint, deputy attorney general says segregation at event for religious and ultra-Orthodox people was improper ■ Organizers say attendees insisted on it

Education Minister Peretz at a conference with sex separation.
From Ossi Zohar's Facebook page

A professional conference on attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in teenagers, attended by government officials and city officials from several Israeli cities was held Monday in Jerusalem with full separation between men and women.

The event was organized by an ultra-Orthodox nonprofit organization. Education Minister Rafi Peretz delivered greetings and participants included representatives from the Clalit Health Services HMO and Teva Pharmaceuticals, as well as the Jerusalem, Rehovot and Petah Tikva municipalities.

Sex segregation at the conference, which was aimed at the ultra-Orthodox and religious public, extended to the speakers; only women addressed those sessions that were meant for women.

Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber said there was no justification for the separation. “If the event took place as advertised, it constitutes invalid discrimination,” Zilber wrote, in response to a complaint from the Israel Women’s Network.

The conference was organized by Noar Besikuy, an umbrella organization for groups that deal with Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) youth, and is headed by Rabbi Yitzhak David Grossman. According to the nonprofit’s website, the conference was meant for psychologists, educators, principals, social workers, representatives of government ministries and local authorities, organizations in the therapeutic and educational areas, medical professionals and parents; its purpose was “To advance awareness and professional knowledge of suitable treatment for the Torah public.”

Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber at a Knesset committee hearing.
Emil Salman

This “suitability” included full sex segregation of the conference attendees and speakers. There were four sessions dealing with different aspects of ADHD (in medicine, therapy, the educational system and the family), divided among three halls – one solely for women, in which only women lectured, and two other halls for men. During the opening session men and women sat in the same hall, separated by a divider.

Women made up only a quarter of the conference’s 60 speakers. Those who spoke to the separate groups included experts from Clalit, representatives from the three municipalities and several Education Ministry officials. The Jerusalem municipality’s logo appeared first on the event’s poster, followed by those of Clalit, Teva and others.

At Noar Besikuy’s last conference, which was dedicated to discussions with officials from various government ministries, men and women sat together with the ministry representatives.

“When I received the conference program, I immediately noticed the separation between men and women at the speaker level,” said a mother who got the invitation. “Beyond the anger at the separation itself, there was a fundamental question: If the purpose of the conference is to present the best research on ADHD, why is the sex of the speaker relevant at all?”

In a letter sent by attorney Miriam Zalkind of the Israel Women’s Network to Zilber, whose position in the Justice Ministry includes fighting against exclusion of women from the public sphere, Zalkind wrote, “The inequality in the number of lectures and female lecturers ... illustrates the absurdity created by gender segregation in all areas of life and the way it expands harm to women, beyond the humiliation of the separation itself.”

In response to the complaint, Zilber spoke to Jerusalem’s legal adviser, Eli Malka, who said he had instructed the organizers not use the municipality’s logo for the conference if there was going to be sex segregation there. Malka added that “Sex separation must take place only voluntarily, based on the wishes of the attendees, and not by order of the conference organizers.” He added that the municipality’s financial contribution to the event was negligible, “therefore there was no justification for using the municipality’s logo in advertisements.”

Notable was Zilber’s remark that the conference was “not a public event,” for which the law permits separation between men and women. “The meaning of this is that the nature and necessity of the conference aren’t such that gender separation is justified, and as such, if the event will take place in the format advertised, it constitutes invalid discrimination.” According to Zalkind, “It’s unfortunate that the education minister comes to address a conference tainted by exclusion of women. It’s unacceptable that professional women lecture only to women and men to men, as if any meeting of the sexes is a disaster that must be prevented at all costs.”

In a response, the education minister’s office said: “As part of his job, Rabbi Peretz will continue to address varied audiences – religious, Haredi, and secular, Jewish and Arab.”

Voluntary separation

The conference organizers said, “The conference was organized for male and female educators in the Haredi community. There were no signs posted at the event calling for separation, and only in the conference hall, in light of the participants’ insistence, they sat that way voluntarily. We expect a basic understanding that the Haredi community chooses to sit separately of its own accord, and we have no intention of fighting this, but to respect the wishes of all participants.”

The Jerusalem and Rehovot municipalities did not respond to a request for comment. The Petah Tikva municipality said its logo had been used without its knowledge. Clalit Health Services said it sees “great importance in providing professional and reliable information on ADHD by giving expert lectures at this conference, which it had no part in organizing.”