The Religious Services Ministry has decided that "at least" 25 percent of the tickets reserved for special groups to Lag Ba'omer festival at Mount Meron should be allocated to women, in effect limiting the amount of tickets that can be allocated to them.
Ultra-Orthodox women criticized the decision, which was approved by Attorney General Gali Baharav-Miara. “The distinction between men and women in allocating the special permits is wrong, unnecessary and will create discrimination between men and women from the community who want to come to the event,” a group of female ultra-Orthodox activists wrote.
The religious feminist organization Kolech agreed, saying: “It’s inconceivable for a government ministry to restrict women from going to Meron, something that will further entrench male ownership of the event.”
In a joint statement, the justice and religious services ministries said the decision allowed "appropriate representation for women under the circumstances."
Due to a deadly stampede at last year’s Meron festivities that killed 45 people, the government decided to restrict the number of participants this year. Consequently, only people with tickets will be allowed to attend the event, known as a hilula, a kind of mass Jewish revival meeting. Each person will be allowed to stay for only four hours, and no more than 16,000 people will be allowed to be there at any given time.
The rules allocated 85 percent of the tickets to the public on a first come, first served basis. The remaining 15 percent were reserved for groups with a “special connection” to the annual event, mainly referring to the various Hasidic sects that hold bonfires there every year, and relatives of the people killed at last year’s festival, most of whom were also ultra-Orthodox. The tickets allocated to the general public make no distinction between men and women.
“This is gross discrimination against women, this time by the country itself,” said Tali Farkash, an ultra-Orthodox activist on educational and gender issues. “The meaning of this rule is that in the state’s view, women from these groups have less right to attend the hilula than men. They’re considered second-class citizens. This is insulting to women in general and ultra-Orthodox women in particular.”
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Six female ultra-Orthodox activists, including Farkash, wrote Ma’atuk on Tuesday to protest the “discriminatory rules, which were set arbitrarily, with no reason or justification,” and demand that the permits be allotted to men and women equally. They said the 25 percent figure “isn’t based on any data,” arguing that men and women are equally interested in attending the event.
Such discrimination is particularly grave coming from a government ministry, they continued, since the ministry “effectively authorized an arrangement that entrenches women’s second-class status in our community.”
They also noted that some ultra-Orthodox men “seek to exclude women completely from the event and claim exclusive male ownership of it – some who think the reason for the disaster [last year] was that men and women were mingling, and some who want to impose stringent rules of modesty on the whole community that go beyond the worldview and beliefs of most participants in the event.”
According to a legal source, the decision appears to "lack a legal basis. In order to allocate a public resource in a way that discriminates on the bases of sex, there must be an explicit authorization for this in the law. And even if there were such authorization, it would have to withstand legal challenges."
The Justice Ministry rejected this criticism, saying the Religious Services Ministry had provided good arguments for its decision and the rules provided “appropriate representation for women given the circumstances.” It added that the decision was approved by three deputy attorneys general – Raz Nizri, Carmit Yulis and Gil Limon.
The Religious Services Ministry referred Haaretz to the Justice Ministry’s statement.