Tel Aviv to Fund Gender-segregated Events for Ages Three and Up, Despite Pledge

One source says Tel Aviv's events for the ultra-Orthodox are illegal, and run contrary to their own declaration that the city 'does not allow the separation of men and women in the public sphere'

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A segregated event at Tel Aviv's Rabin Square, in 2018.
A segregated event at Tel Aviv's Rabin Square, in 2018.Credit: Gil Cohen-Magen

The Tel Aviv-Jaffa municipality will hold a series of leisure events this summer for the religious and ultra-Orthodox communities with gender segregation for children aged three and up, and other events limited to "single female participants above 12."

The events are subsidized, and some are to be held outside of Tel Aviv – at water parks, at Lake Kinneret and at holy tombs. The gender separation runs contrary to the city’s own declarations, according to which it “does not allow the separation of men and women in the public sphere.”

According to a source with expertise on the subject, this separation is illegal. The municipality responded that the events “are not held in public spaces,” and are “part of the maintenance of the status quo and of balancing the needs of various residents.”

In a brochure of summer events recently distributed by Tel Aviv's department of Torah culture, many of the 25 events are described as including complete gender segregation. “Plays for the whole family” will be held on different days according to gender, and pool activities will be limited to men and boys or women and girls. “There will be no entry for girls aged three and up” at the events for men and boys, says the ad. Another ad, inviting readers to “a relaxing day at the pool with a movie” says that entry is allowed to “single female participants above 12.” The gender separation is to be maintained in courses as well: Some offer gym and capoeira to boys, and drama and animal therapy to girls.

The cost of entry is very low: Ten Israeli shekels ($3) for plays and pool parties, and 70 to 75 shekels ($20 to $22) for excursions out of town (some of which are also segregated). Another event – “a relaxing day in the north” – offers boating on the Kinneret and a visit to the sacred tombs of rabbis in Tiberias and Hazor, including a restaurant lunch, at the cost of 160 shekels ($46). According to a senior city hall figure, the municipality has never supported activities outside the city limits. “The idea is to work inside the city, not elsewhere,” he explained.

According to a legal source with expertise in the field, “treating 3-year-old girls as a potential blight on modesty, to the point of disallowing their entry to an event, is not only blatantly illegal, but also constitutes a frightening reflection of a new radical worldview, unrelated to religion or halakha.” Halakha is the body of Jewish laws derived from the Torah.

“Israeli law recognizes separate bathing times at swimming pools,” says Dr. Yofi Tirosh, a Tel Aviv University legal scholar. “But turning 3-year-olds into sexual creatures liable to seduce and be seduced is a concerning example of a radicalizing trend. Not only is the municipality breaking the law, but it is actively helping shape radical separation and modesty norms that hamstring the religious community itself, which has no problem bringing a five-year-old boy to a pool during women’s hours or to a play for girls.”

The city said about a year ago that “by law, the public sphere must be accessible and open to all,” vowing that “we will not allow a situation where people are denied access to part of the public space.” Mayor Ron Huldai has boasted in the past that Tel Aviv is always at the forefront “in regard to human rights, equality, and gender equality in particular.” About three months ago the city affirmed that there has been "no change to the city's position" here, which has been disallowing the separation of men and women in the public sphere.

But, in an apparent about-face, a few days ago it said, “There is no issue – legally or substantively – in holding an event specifically for women and girls.” As Haaretz reported last week, Tel Aviv recently held a screening for women only of a film by ultra-Orthodox filmmakers, and the film will be screened again in segregation, this time under the auspices of Deputy Mayor, Rabbi Elchanan Zvulun. Last week, prior to the revelation of the brochure featuring many segregated activities, the city had said, “Needless to say, separated events are rarely held in the city.”

An anonymous source in the municipality characterized the brochure – which includes greetings from Deputy Mayor Zvulun and head of neighborhood Torah culture Menashe Ovadia – as "political promotion" by ultra-Orthodox party Shas "at the expense of public funds." The city’s spokesperson characterized the matter as a mishap "that will not reoccur," according to Zvulun aide Binyamin Asher, who was asked for comment.

Deputy Mayor Zipi Brand said she will demand that the municipality’s director general open an investigation into the decision to disseminate such a brochure, which she called contrary to city policy. “If not for the city’s logo on the top of the page, no one would have believed that segregated events are held in the city,” she said.

Brand added, “It is unreasonable for the city to use public funds to subsidize pool entry by 50 percent or more only for the skullcap-wearing public. These prices are lower than similar events for other residents.”

The municipality said in response to this that the events "do not take place in public spaces. Most are long-standing swimming events, as part of the status quo, during limited hours in a small portion of the city’s pools.”

Like other municipalities, Tel Aviv is basing its policies here on a 2019 ruling from former Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit, who said then that it is extremely difficult to justify segregation for events for children or families. Mendelblit said municipalities can hold leisure activities in segregation under certain conditions, including an examination of the target audience, the nature of the event, whether the separation is necessary and whether it is done willingly.

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