A secular high school in Tel Aviv recently turned down an invitation to meet students from a religious high school after they were told there would be separate discussions for boys and girls and were also asked to “dress modestly.”
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The meeting was one of a series that is supported by the Education Ministry. Most secular schools have in the past acceded to such requests, which are also backed by the Education Ministry. Sources at the ministry said that while gender segregation was not their guideline, it honored such requests. One source said that the ministry had until now not dealt with insistence on co-ed discussions.
The meeting between the student councils of the secular school (Ironi Dalet) and the religious school from Netanya was instigated two weeks ago by the youth and society administration of the Education Ministry, which oversees many of the informal activities in schools. After consent was given, the ministry related the conditions set by the religious school, which also included the demand that the secular pupils dress “modestly” for the meetings.
The student council at Ironi Dalet led the opposition to these conditions. One student said that “no one meant to dress provocatively in order to annoy them but we didn’t like being told how to dress. The gender separation also bothered us. For us, common activity is a no less important value. This was a red line over which we couldn’t compromise.”
Another student said that if this was a meeting of equals, there was no justification for preconditions that dictate who sits with whom.
“If you want to meet the ‘other’ you should meet them as they are, not in an artificial setting, certainly not an unequal one,” said another person familiar with the students’ arguments. He added that “it’s a pity that in many meetings between secular and religious people the demand for concessions or changes always comes from one side. Who said that religious values are better than secular ones?”
HaKfar Hayarok high school adopted another stance, holding meetings with students from the settlement of Kedumim. “We try to get our students to meet students from other sectors,” said a school official. “We respected their request to hold gender-separated discussions, but the rest of the visit was integrated. We can’t talk to the other side if we stay entrenched in the righteousness of our own path. After we meet, they may ask less for things they now deem essential (such as gender segregation). This was a consideration, not a concession, an opening to dialogue.”
Following Ironi Dalet’s refusal, the meeting was cancelled and held with another school, which accepted the preconditions. The Education Ministry was surprised by the refusal, saying that such requests depend on each specific religious school. “We try to find bridging solutions so that everyone is comfortable,” said one official.
Another official, however, said that these meetings are always predicated on gender segregation. “No one disputes the fact that it’s the secular schools that need to adapt. This creates a false impression whereby the religious students have principles and the secular ones are uncultured or undisciplined.”
This official said that the ministry wants these meetings and supports them financially, but falls silent when preconditions are set. “The message is that the feelings and beliefs of only one side need to be respected. There is not much equality in these meetings.”
The activist group, the Secular Forum, stated that “it is offensive to see the state religious school trying to impose their values on secular ones. In many cases, secular students are required to forego their values in order to respect religious feelings. Gender separation is contrary to secular and liberal principles and damages pluralist education.”