Women Made to Watch Public Events on Screens as Israeli City Doubles Down on Gender Segregation

Attorney general made segregation at cultural events funded by taxpayers' money legally acceptable, but Beit Shemesh goes even further, keeping ultra-Orthodox women in separate halls

Women watching men attending a cultural event on a screen in the city of Beit Shemesh, Israel, October 2019
Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

The state is funding cultural events for the ultra-Orthodox community where gender segregation is enforced by seating women in separate spaces where they can only watch the performance on screens.

Until now, separation of men and women — which was the focus of litigation and public debate last summer — was usually carried out by using a partition to divide a space into two sections. But gender separation in the city of Beit Shemesh is more stringent, Haaretz found, as it seemingly strives to remove women entirely from the shared public space.

A few weeks ago, Israel’s attorney general, Avichai Mendelblit, issued a controversial written legal opinion acquiescing to segregation between men and women at publicly funded events under certain conditions.However, the statement did not take into account this form of exclusion — apparently because that option did not even occur to the jurists who took part in the discussions.

This past week, posters for Simchat Beit Hashoeva (a water-drawing celebration observed at Sukkot) started to appear around Beit Shemesh. Ultra-Orthodox men were invited to participate in several events, including some involving dancing and singing.

At least two of the ads bear the logos of the Negev and Galilee Development Ministry and Beit Shemesh municipality, and note that the events are funded by the ministry (which is headed by Arye Dery, from the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox Shas party).

Less prominently displayed, though, is the fact that the event “will be broadcast live to women.”

Another poster, which only features the Beit Shemesh municipality logo, promises that women will be situated in another hall.

At a fourth event, held under the patronage of a member of the city council, an ad says “there will be no women’s section” at all this year, “due to work in the yeshiva complex, and in order to maintain appropriate standards of holiness and modesty.”

The audience at a gender-segregated concert in Afula, August 2019.
Gil Eliahu

Despite evidence to the contrary, a spokesperson for Beit Shemesh, Dafna Cohen Nouriel, says the last two events are not connected to the municipality.

This summer, separation between men and women at a state-subsidized concert in the northern city of Afula brought gender segregation into the public eye. A legal challenge ultimately led to a court ruling against the separation, but only after the segregated concert had gone ahead.

In the wake of the storm, Attorney General Mendelblit announced legal criteria for the holding of segregated events with public funding. “Special circumstances,” according to Mendelblit, can make it possible to enforce gender separation — even at cultural events. This contradicted his policy until then, which was based on legislation, legal interpretation of the courts and the government report on exclusion of women that was subsequently adopted as a cabinet decision about five years ago — all of which limited segregation exclusively to religious events.

Mendelblit’s criteria included, among other things, considerations for the target audience of the event, and how crucial it was to the community. It also asked to consider whether segregation was enforced “willingly” (without expanding on the idea of willingness). He came under fire for setting these criteria on the basis of a single hearing held at the Justice Ministry, which did not give all sides the ability to make representations. 

A group of women outside the screening of a segregated event in Beit Shemesh, Israel, October 2019
Avishag Shaar-Yashuv

Mendelblit’s safeguards opened the door to an increase in the degree of segregation between men and women. Even so, it seems unlikely the Beit Shemesh events meet the more lenient conditions set down by the attorney general.

For the municipality, the fact the performances would take place without the physical presence of any women poses no problem whatsoever. “Just like there are events for the secular public, there are events for the ultra-Orthodox community,” said Nouriel. “And there are many other events across the city for the general population, where there is no separation.”

A Negev and Galilee Development Ministry spokesman said, “The ministry’s support for cultural events, just as with the other public appeals that the ministry issues, is carried out with legal approval. In the event that there are any deviations from the regulations, the event will not be budgeted.”

Haaretz reported at the beginning of the year that between 2016 and 2018 — well before Mendelblit issued his legal opinion — the ministry provided about 15 million shekels ($4.2 million) in funding for more than 200 events in which there was gender separation. The list includes a number of events that were not related to religious observance. The events included an art workshop in Betar Ilit and a “cultural empowerment conference” for men in Modi’in Ilit.

Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit at the opening of the legal year at the Airport City complex adjacent to Ben Gurion airport, on September 3, 2019.
\ Ilan Assayag

The scope of the events is evidence that gender segregation in recent years has expanded to include cultural and recreational programming held in public spaces, under government auspices. The details were provided to the Israel Women’s Network in response to a request under the Freedom of Information Law.

The Israel Women’s Network told Haaretz the recent trend of exclusion and separation of women is becoming more extreme. “Any tolerance of forced separation in public spaces ultimately also leads to the complete expulsion of women, and what starts in Beit Shemesh reaches everywhere in the country,” it said in a statement.

“I am extremely disappointed in the municipality and Beit Shemesh Mayor Aliza Bloch,” said local resident Shoshanna Jaskoll. “This is not about Judaism; it is about extremism. It is painful each and every single time to be reminded that we women are a second thought — that it is always OK for us to expect subpar conditions and not to be considered important enough to spend money, time and effort in ensuring that our experience is of the same quality as the men.”

Jaskoll is a founder of the Chochmat Nashim collective, which advocates for “a healthy global Jewish society by raising awareness of extremist trends and the harm they cause to our community,” focusing on the “erasure of women.”

Beit Shemesh Mayor Aliza Bloch.
\ Gil Cohen-Magen

Bloch, who is religious but not ultra-Orthodox, won a narrow victory over the city’s incumbent mayor, Moshe Abutbul, last November, making her the city's first ever female mayor.

In her acceptance speech, she said that by choosing her, Beit Shemesh had “decided to eliminate the walls, to eliminate the partitions. Up till today, the extremes have been conducting the discussion and depriving us from seeing human beings.”

Nili Philipp and Eve Finkelstein belong to a group of religious women in Beit Shemesh that successfully sued for the removal of “modesty signs” in the city (which has long been the center of disputes between the ultra-Orthodox community and other residents). “There is no justification for excluding women from a publicly funded event. Women pay taxes just like men — and in many Haredi homes, women are the only ones paying income tax. Mayor Bloch should either find a way to allow women to attend, or postpone the event,” said Philipp.

“Women’s rights are always seen as something expendable,” said Finkelstein. “Women’s rights are collateral damage so that ultra-Orthodox and yeshiva students can join the army. Female lecturers’ rights are collateral damage so that Haredi men will seek higher education. And Beit Shemesh women’s basic rights to attend a concert are trampled to keep Haredi men happy. We are used to the repression coming from men preserving the patriarchy. It is much more disappointing when the repression is endorsed by women.”

For Yofi Tirosh, one of the leaders of the struggle against exclusion of women on religious grounds, “segregation is marketed to the Israeli public as being critical to the integration of the ultra-Orthodox community, and that it reflects worthy values of tolerating cultural differences. But in recent years, we have come to see that every attempt to lay down red lines around ‘tolerable’ and ‘legitimate’ segregation soon collapses, and the lines are crossed. The segregation only expands and its entrenched character only grows deeper.

“Within a few weeks, the criteria cited in the legal opinion of Mendelblit, who attempted in vain to set boundaries between legitimate separation and illegitimate separation, became irrelevant,” she added. “We used to have to contend with separate seating, but now it is with the total exclusion of women from the space in which the events are held. The public in Israel has to understand the significance of the collaboration of state institutions with segregation: it is embedding the most extreme norms.”

Orly Erez-Likhovski, legal director at the Reform movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, said Mendelblit’s legal opinion indicated that “an event designed for a single gender must be highly exceptional, and requires a serious and weighty justification based on the existence of a relevant consideration that stems directly from the character of the event — and there must be a substantiated need for a separated event to occur.” She agreed with Tirosh that the Beit Shemesh events did not meet that standard.