Separate-sex classes at universities are permissible to promote the ultra-Orthodox community’s integration into higher education, Israel's High Court of Justice ruled on Monday.
The court, however, determined that the policy barring female faculty members from teaching in male-only classes must be repealed immediately.
The justices added that the ruling will only apply to the classroom, and genders must be allowed to mix freely in all other public areas of the campus.
Moreover, it will only extend to bachelor’s degree programs, meaning the Council for Higher Education will have to abandon its plan for single-sex classes in master’s degree programs.
The Council for Higher Education began encouraging and subsidizing special programs for ultra-Orthodox students in 2012, with separate-sex classes forming a central part of these programs.
Following the program's inception in 2012, the council has gradually expanded gender segregation in academia, including by increasing the percentage of students allowed to study in separate-sex classes. The council also reported to the court that separation is no longer limited to the classroom, but has expanded into other parts of campus.
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Justices Hanan Melcer, Neal Hendel, Uzi Vogelman, Anat Baron and Yosef Elron ruled on four petitions filed in 2016 and 2017 against various aspects of the gender separation policy, including one submitted by a group of academics headed by Dr. Yofi Tirosh.
They were also considering a counterpetition by the Kohelet Policy Forum demanding that all limits on separate-sex studies be removed on the grounds that such restrictions violate the right to cultural autonomy.
All five justices agreed that the ban on female faculty teaching men-only classes violated the lecturers’ human dignity and had to be abolished. However, they disagreed on whether separate-sex classes should be allowed at all. Melcer, Hendel and Elron supported such classes for ultra-Orthodox students, while Vogelman and Baron said the Council for Higher Education had no authority to permit separate-sex classes.
Melcer, the Deputy Chief of Justice, rejected the argument that gender separation in academia violates the right to equality. Among other reasons, he cited the fact that the Student Rights Law explicitly permits separate-sex classes.
Moreover, he said, most students studying in separate-sex tracks choose these tracks voluntarily, due to their own religious beliefs. Anyone who doesn’t want separate-sex classes remains free to choose the mixed-gender track.
Finally, he argued, even if separate-sex classes did violate equality, the violation was for an appropriate purpose – getting ultra-Orthodox students to attend college – and was not disproportionate.
The Association for Civil Rights in Israel praised the court for stating explicitly that barring female faculty from teaching male-only classes constitutes illegal discrimination.
“Nevertheless, the ruling sends a dangerous message that excluding women from public spaces is legitimate,” it added. “In a democratic society, the claim that ultra-Orthodox men’s freedom of religion necessitates creating public spaces free of women cannot be accepted. Integrating the ultra-Orthodox into society is a worthy goal, but it cannot be achieved through gender segregation and excluding women from public spaces.”