'This Is Not Iran' |

Israel's Religious and Far-right Parties Demand Law to Legitimize Gender Segregation

Religious Zionism and United Torah Judaism parties want to legalize separation of men and women at ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox cultural events, education and public services to prevent what they call 'judicial persecution by the legal system'

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United Torah Judaism leader Yitzhak Goldknopf in Jerusalem on Sunday.
United Torah Judaism leader Yitzhak Goldknopf in Jerusalem on Sunday.Credit: Emil Salman

In exchange for joining the coalition, the far-right Religious Zionism and United Torah Judaism parties have demanded legislation that gender separation at public events will not be considered discrimination. Likud has not yet decided whether to grant the demand.

Prime Minister Yair Lapid said in response: “While in Iran courageous women are fighting for their rights, in Israel, Smotrich and the ultra-Orthodox nationalists are trying to send women behind barriers and enshrine into law separation between men and women. Where is Likud? Why are they silent? This is not Iran."

According to a report in Israel Hayom, Religious Zionism and UTJ want to legalize separation of men and women at ultra-Orthodox and Orthodox cultural events, education and public services. This will prevent what they call “judicial persecution by the legal system.”

Attempts have been made in recent years to normalize gender separation at Orthodox cultural events, campuses and other locales, which is currently illegal but has been allowed, under controversy, in certain circumstances.

MK Matan Kahana (National Unity Party), who until recently served in the religious services ministry, tweeted in response: “There are groups for whom gender separation is a way of life. To not allow these groups to hold gender-separated cultural events is simply coercion. No citizen in Israel has to participate in these events or study in institutions where gender separation is the norm. Those who want Haredim [ultra-Orthodox] to integrate into Israeli society cannot enforce their way of life on others.”

Uri Keidar, head of Be Free Israel (“Israel Hofsheet”), a non-profit that supports religious freedom and pluralism, said in response that the religious parties won't stop at cultural events: "In their reality, women cannot lead government offices, be combat soldiers, girls can't play soccer or basketball against boys, and ride the bus separately. This is already happening today, and if they get their way, it will only get worse," Keidar said.

"The Israeli public does not want gender separation, and does not want to go back to the times when women and men did not have equal rights. We will not agree to go back to this dark reality," Keidar added.

Israeli law prohibits discrimination on the basis of gender, but it makes exceptions under certain conditions. In 2014, the government (then headed by Benjamin Netanyahu) adopted an inter-ministerial committee report, headed by Sarit Dana from the Justice Ministry, which outlined different ways to combat the exclusion of women.

Among other things, it was established that "a government office or other public authority is not allowed to organize a public event during which measures will be taken with the aim of bringing about the separation between men and women."

The "narrow and limited" exceptions established in the report referred to "an event whose main purpose is religious worship or a religious ceremony."

Despite the report's official adoption, some government ministries, especially those that were under a religious or ultra-Orthodox minister, looked for ways to circumvent the ban, which gradually lost its power.

In 2019, following a debate surrounding the public funding of a show separating men from women in Afula, former Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit stated, that local authorities may also, under certain conditions, maintain gender segregation in leisurely and entertainment events, and not only in religious ceremonies.

According to the opinion presented by Mandelblit, the conditions include identifying the target audience and the nature of the event, whether the separation is voluntary, and whether it is essential.

In recent years, segregation at cultural events has become a central struggle for ultra-Orthodox politicians – including religious officials such as Smotrich, who also seek to benefit from such laws.

The ultra-orthodox parties demanded to cancel segregation restrictions after one of the election rounds in 2019, and as far as is known, it was accepted by the Likud at the time.

Such an amendment to the "Prohibition of Discrimination in Products and Services Law" will have further consequences other than gender, such as the exclusion and discrimination against Arabs and the LGBT community due to "religious beliefs."

Last week, the list of agreements between head of the Likud, Benjamin Netanyahu, and head of Otzma Yehudit, Itamar Ben-Gvir was posted as part of coalition negotiations.

According to the document, the two agreed, among other things, to amend the Disengagement Law in order to enable Jews to settle in the evacuated settlement of Homesh in the northern West Bank. Additionally, the two also agreed to expand the Dromi Law, which exempts those who harm a burglar breaking into their home, business or farm from criminal liability and to also have it apply to the theft of weapons from military bases.

The two also agreed that within 60 days of the formation of the government, infrastructure will be provided for a series of outposts (known on the right as "the youth settlements"), likely in legislation that wouldn't fully legalize them. They also agreed that a yeshiva would be established in the Evyatar outpost, whose residents were evicted from it last year.

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