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Tel Aviv Makes It Clear: Gender Segregation Is Never the Norm

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A rally at Tel Aviv's Rabin Square, May 2018.
A rally at Tel Aviv's Rabin Square, May 2018.Credit: Moti Milrod

Perhaps the most important part of Tel Aviv's decision not to allow gender segregation at an event planned by the Chabad Hasidic movement for Rabin Square this Monday is the statement that “segregation of men and women in the public sphere constitutes discrimination.”

As simple as that. The growing demand for gender segregation has eroded this principle. What had been taken for granted until a few years ago now requires a reminder: The default isn’t that segregation is allowed, but the opposite. Without apologizing or stuttering, Mayor Ron Huldai showed that the liberal camp also has values worth standing up for.

The city’s decision not to permit the event was published this past Monday. The following day the municipality’s deputy director general, Rubi Zelof, met representatives of Chabad, the organizer of the rally “Messiah in the Square” that was intended to “greet the Lubavitcher Rebbe, King Messiah.”

That’s what the leaflets distributed before the event said, referring to the late Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson. Still, it was clear that it wasn’t a religious ritual but rather a cultural happening, so there was no reason to exempt it from the basic obligations for the public space – like avoiding discrimination.

The organizers, actually a Chabad group linked to the movement’s messianic faction, petitioned the Tel Aviv District Court on Thursday, demanding to be allowed to set up a barrier between men and women “based on the rules of halakha” – Jewish law. They argued that the city had given its permission to segregate the genders long ago and now was revoking it due to “political pressure” in the name of “the war on excluding women.” They also claimed that this was a clearly religious event where the law allows segregation.

Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai at Bloomfield Stadium in 2016. Credit: Ofer Vaknin

The city’s full answer, which Haaretz has obtained, clearly defends the basic principles of the public space. It doesn’t try to force a mixed life on men and women, Jews and Arabs, Ashkenazim and Mizrahim or rich and poor. It only objects to the attempt to discriminate against one group in the name of another group’s beliefs. That’s the meaning of the common space: It belongs to everyone and must stay open to everyone.

In March, the municipality had agreed in principle to hold the rally in the square. But in recent weeks the organizers stepped up the advertising, promising “special places for women” – though none on the stage.

At the beginning of June, the Israel Women’s Network and other groups complained to the city and the attorney general that the rally consisted of forbidden gender segregation. The city’s decision is based on Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit’s ruling that the municipality has the authority “to stipulate that no gender segregation is practiced at an event permitted by the city.”

The city notes that only special circumstances can justify segregation; otherwise it’s merely discrimination. That’s the key point: Tel Aviv isn’t expanding its approach to equality, but (merely) applying it to this case. The argument by the ultra-Orthodox is that unless proven otherwise, segregation is permitted and even desirable.

The document cites the report by an interministerial panel looking into the exclusion of women, which notes that this practice “undermines the premises on which democracy is based.” One chapter addresses segregation at events, stipulating that a public authority is “a key agent in advancing the protection of human rights” and must not “practice any segregation between men and women, even if this appears to be at the request of some of the public involved.” The report’s conclusions were adopted in a 2014 cabinet decision.

Tel Aviv's Rabin Square after Israel won the Eurovision Song Contest, May 2018. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

The exception to this is a clear religious event. Chabad said the rally in the square was such an event, so gender segregation should be allowed, but the city rejected this argument. Physical segregation “is not in keeping with the right of free use” of the public sphere, the city said. The public, passing through Rabin Square, “might see the segregation as an infringement.”

In reply to Chabad’s argument that banning the segregation would deter religious women from attending the event, the city said “every participant has the right to choose his place in the square, but creating a physical barrier and preventing free passage in the public sphere” is a whole different matter – one that cannot be agreed to.

The people supporting segregation in the name of freedom of religion or cultural tolerance are fooling themselves. The Chabad event is similar to demands for segregation elsewhere, as in the army, academia and training for the civil service. Whether institutionalized or covert, the segregation always amounts to discrimination.

The court will hear the petition Sunday. The argument isn’t whether “Messiah in the Square” is a religious or cultural event, but whether gender segregation will become a norm in the public sphere.

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