The Negev and Galilee Development Ministry, headed by Arye Dery, funded more than 200 gender-segregated events in the past three years, in violation of Israeli law and an explicit cabinet resolution.
Many of the events were not specifically religious in nature, suggesting a spillover into cultural and activities events.
The ministry’s underwriting of separate events for men and women went against a government resolution adopting the recommendations of an interministerial team appointed to fight the exclusion of females from Israel’s public sphere.
According to figures obtained from the ministry by the Israel Women’s Network under the Freedom of Information Law, the government allocated some 15.4 million shekels ($4.2 million) for sex-segregated events in the past three years. The number of events spiked to an average of 85 in 2017 and in 2018, from 40 in 2016, for 213 events during this period. The money was assigned in budget categories such as “cultural events in Israel’s social periphery” or “cultural events for ultra-Orthodox Jews, new immigrants and minorities.”
In addition to religious events, there were events at an amusement park, an illustration workshop in the predominantly Haredi community of Betar Illit; a field day at a pool and cooking workshops in Beit Shemesh; a joint Bnei Brak–Kiryat Ye’arim conference on education and culture; Hanukkah events in Elad; Sukkot activities in Zichron Yaakov; a summer festival and “men-empowering cultural gathering” in Modi’in Ilit, performances in Immanuel, a music festival in Yavne’el and a “start of winter” event in Ganei Modi’in, to name a few.
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During Dery’s tenure, the ministry’s annual budget increased to 370 million shekels in 2018, from 222 million shekels in 2015. The business daily Calcalist reported this week that Dery funneled considerable amounts from the ministry’s budget into developing buildings for Jewish religious purposes.
Dery finances three kinds of events: activities for men only, activities for women only and joint, sex-segregated activities.
In September, the city of Netivot planned a musical performance for men only. Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber, who is spearheading the legal campaign against women’s exclusion, wrote at the time that banning women from an event “generally characterized as a holiday show and organized by a public authority and sponsored by cabinet ministries and the local government infringes on women’s right to equality and dignity.”
Zilber said this infringement isn’t only due to “excluding women from a general public event due solely to their sex” but also because they are denied the resources the municipality and state allocate for the benefit of all the residents.
This restriction could be conducive to “a nonegalitarian public sphere and educate to wrong practices of exclusion, which embody a humiliating, inappropriate message that could strengthen and perpetuate women’s discrimination in the overall population,” Zilber wrote.
Following the Justice Ministry’s intervention, the event was opened to women, but they were seated in the far sides of the auditorium, from which the stage was barely visible. A high partition separated them from the men.
The invitation to the show bore the Negev and Galilee Development Ministry logo, but the ministry said it was a mistake. However, Dery gave a speech at the event. A few days later, it emerged that Dery’s ministry finances musical performances in Jerusalem that are open to men only.
In September a public ritual for the Sukkot holiday, Simhat Beit Hasho’evah, was held in Tel Aviv. Men and women were separated at the event, funding for which was provided by the city’s religious culture department and the Negev and Galilee Development Ministry. Both agencies are controlled by Dery's Shas party. The event, which was supposed to be held in a park in the south of the city, was moved to a private hall following the city’s objection to “sex segregation in events in the public sphere.” Haaretz reported that hundreds of participants entered the hall from separate entrances for women and men. A low fence separated the sexes genders. Sefardi Chief Rabbi Yitzhak Yosef attended the event, for which the ministry allocated 120,000 shekels.
Isolated events in Netivot, Jerusalem or Tel Aviv have become a flood of 200 events in three years and an official segregation policy. Nobody talks of equality anymore and the promise of “separate but equal” is broken repeatedly. Even the religious justification, if there was one, has been abandoned. The new argument is that banning segregated events is a violation of the “public’s right to uphold and honor its heritage,” as Dery wrote on Facebook after the Beit Hashoeva ritual in Tel Aviv last year was moved. For Shas’ leader, the “infringement on heritage” overcomes every other consideration.
The significance is clear: the state must recognize and support customs that violate equality in the public sphere. Some of the events Dery finances are intended for a broad traditional public, which does not necessarily agree to segregation. Turning segregation into the norm raises the walls between men and women higher and blurs the line between those who segregate and those who don’t.
Elinor Davidov, director of the Women’s Exclusion Project in the Israel Womens Network, says the Negev and Galilee Development Ministry “decided to ignore the cabinet resolution and the law banning discrimination, both of which forbid public funding of segregated events. By so doing the ministry is cultivating inequality and discrimination.”
“The assumption that all the ultra-Orthodox public is interested in segregation is false. Religious, ultra-Orthodox and secular women pay taxes and are entitled to enter any public event, and sit wherever they like. We’ll use all the legal means to stop women’s discrimination,” Davidov says.
In a statement, the ministry said it “supports strengthening the social and geographic periphery in various ways, including cultural events. All the events are approved by the auditor and legal advisor, and are in keeping with proper conduct.”