Israeli Minister Claims ultra-Orthodox Have Right to Hold 'Women-free' Events

Interior Minister Dery to let municipalities hold sex-segregated public events, even though Justice Ministry had accepted committee's recommendations to the contrary

Interior Minister Arye Dery
Interior Minister Arye Dery Emil Salman

Interior Ministry Arye Dery wants to let municipalities hold sex-segregated public events, despite a Justice Ministry ruling to the contrary that was also adopted as a cabinet resolution.

In a letter to Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, Dery argued that the ban on gender separation is a “substantive infringement” on the rights of the ultra-Orthodox minority and reflects “an ideological worldview dressed up in the guise of legal values.”

He therefore wants to freeze implementation of the recommendations of a task force on combating women’s exclusion from public spaces. The task force was set up by the previous attorney general, Yehuda Weinstein, and cabinet endorsed its recommendations in 2014.

For more than three years now, and despite repeated urging by the Justice Ministry, the Interior Ministry has refrained from issuing orders to municipalities to implement the task force’s recommendations. These include banning gender separation at public events and prohibiting street signs urging women to dress modestly or walk only in certain places.

Only in July did Dery’s ministry finally issue any response to the Justice Ministry’s pleas – and that response was Dery’s letter to Mendelblit rejecting the task force’s recommendations and the cabinet’s decision.

The task force said that public agencies bear primary responsibility for defending human rights, and therefore, municipalities and other public bodies may not organize public events that separate men and women, “even if this is ostensibly being done at the request of part of the affected public.” They may not even post signs or set up barriers meant to encourage separate seating.

”Women have full and equal rights to participate in every aspect and every stage of such events, both as an audience and as participants,” it wrote.

But Dery’s letter, which was first reported on the ultra-Orthodox website Kikar HaShabbat, rejected this conclusion, saying it violated the rights of the ultra-Orthodox minority and what he termed the state’s obligation to defend the “cultural uniqueness” of different communities.

For the ultra-Orthodox, Dery argued, gender separation isn’t “a mere social preference”; rather, it stems from “reasons that go to the root of the religious and halakhic commitment of a person who fears the word of God and the halakhic rulings handed down from generation to generation.” Halakha is Jewish religious law.

The prohibition on gender segregation, he continued, will effectively make it impossible to hold any public event intended for the ultra-Orthodox community. “This result severely, disproportionately and inappropriately harms the right of the ultra-Orthodox minority to take an equal part in cultural events funded by the public purse,” he wrote.

Dery noted that not a single ultra-Orthodox representative was included in the task force. Moreover, he charged, the panel’s stated commitment to “pluralism and multiculturalism” appears to be limited to Israel’s non-Jewish minorities, and does not extend to “the ultra-Orthodox Jewish minority.”

The Justice Ministry’s professional staff has repeatedly rejected similar arguments, including during a discussion a few months ago in the Knesset Committee on the Status of Women. It argues that the ban isn’t an attempt to change the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle, but merely an attempt to preserve an egalitarian public space. Moreover, it says, the norm in public forums is for women and men to be together; religious events meant solely for the ultra-Orthodox are the exception, not the rule.

Nor is women’s exclusion a problem limited to ultra-Orthodox society. It’s also a problem in Arab society, where nongovernmental organizations have been cooperating with the Justice Ministry in an effort to fight it. “We need to work in an egalitarian manner to end this practice in both the Jewish and the Arab community,” said MK Aida Touma-Suliman (Joint List), who chairs the Committee on the Status of Women.

“Reality shows that even today – and perhaps even more than in the past – there’s a real need for cooperation and mobilization to prevent the exclusion of women from public spaces,” a Justice Ministry official told the committee. “Intensive activity is needed to end this practice, which is spreading into many walks of life.”

The Interior Ministry said ministry officials recently met with Mendeblit and Justice Minister Ayelet Shaked on this issue and “will soon issue a letter to municipalities clarifying the legal situation on matters relating to women’s exclusion from public spaces.”