'When in Rome': Ex-chief Justice Speaks at ultra-Orthodox College's Gender-separated Event

‘If they would have asked me to wear a skullcap, I would have done so,’ said Aharon Barak about the setup for his speech at ultra-Orthodox campus of Ono College

The Ono College event at which former Israeli chief justice Aharon Barak spoke last week
Eyal Toueg/Ono Academic College

Former Israeli Supreme Court chief justice Aharon Barak addressed a student audience Thursday at an ultra-Orthodox campus with a divider separating the male and female students.

To really understand Israel - subscribe to Haaretz

“When in Rome, do as the Romans do. If they would have asked me to wear a skullcap, I would have done so,” Barak said at the Jerusalem campus of Ono Academic College. “I was invited to give a speech, and it is another question whether I agree to the separation of men and women, that is a very difficult and complex issue,” he said. Barak added that he told the students that he saw them as “a bridge between their world and the secular world.”

>> Behind the sudden and surprising decline of ultra-Orthodox schools in Israel | Analysis

Unlike studies at the college, which are completely gender-separated, the meeting at which Barak spoke was attended by both men and women, who were separated by a divider. According to the dean of law studies at the college, Prof. Yuval Albashan, the fact that ultra-Orthodox students came to hear Prof. Barak is not to be taken for granted, nor is the fact “that women sat at the front of the hall.”

In recent years, Ono College has been operating a gender-separated academic program for ultra-Orthodox students. Until recently, as reported in Haaretz, the students at the ultra-Orthodox campuses had to declare that they would conduct themselves “in a manner in keeping with the ultra-Orthodox lifestyle,” as a condition for acceptance. They were warned that breaking this commitment could lead to their expulsion. Women received detailed instructions on acceptable behavior and attire.

The High Court of Justice is now hearing two petitions involving the Council for Higher Education in Israel’s plans for gender-separate studies. One petition, by a group of academics, states that separation is unacceptable and the other, by the Kohelet Forum,a nonpartisan think tank, seeks to allow unlimited gender separation.

In a suit brought by the Israel Women’s Network, the Jerusalem Labor Court ruled last month that a course to train ultra-Orthodox men for civil service jobs was to be suspended if women were not allowed to join. Judge Rachel Barag-Hirschberg accepted the Israel Women’s Network’s argument that in opening a separate course for men “the state had impaired the basic right of women to equality.” Last week, the National Labor Court issued a temporary injunction delaying implementation of the ruling, enabling the course to continue to operate with men only until the court rules on an appeal over the issue.