Rights Groups Slam Israel's AG for Weighing 'Special Circumstances' Permitting Gender Segregation

Women's, civil society groups urge Avichai Mendelblit to hold a public hearing before he holds debate on extending sex segregation at publicly-funded events

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Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Tel Aviv, March 2019.
Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit at Bar-Ilan University in Ramat Gan, Tel Aviv, March 2019.Credit: Nir Keidar

Organizations fighting the exclusion of women at public events are demanding a hearing in advance of a debate Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit is planning on expanding separation between men and women at such gatherings.

According to the women's and civil society groups, such a debate – due to be held in the coming days – is illegal and counters Supreme Court rulings.

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Mendelblit has called for an "urgent" discussion on “the special circumstances in which a municipality can hold events for the ultra-Orthodox public with separation [between men and women].”

The attorney general's announcement followed the furor that erupted over a sex-segregated concert for the Haredi community, sponsored by the Afula municipality. While the event took place, last Wednesday, the Supreme Court overturned a ruling by a district court that had permitted it to take place.

Six organizations – including the Israel Women’s Network, the Secular Forum and the Reform Movement – sent a letter to Mendelblit on Friday, explaining that his proposal goes against the position of a report issued in 2013 on the exclusion of women, which was subsequently adopted as a government resolution.

The groups demanded that he allow them “to let their position be heard before any change of policy,” at a public forum. The issue of gender-segregation at government organized or funded events should also not be discussed, they noted, during a period in which there is a transitional government, "in consideration of existing political and public pressures.”

They added that, “In keeping with the ruling that obligates all state authorities, including the attorney general,” separation between the sexes at public events can be allowed only if it is “completely voluntary, completely egalitarian and based in the core of religious practice, and that there be an identical alternative that is not gender-separated."

None of those circumstances, they wrote, "are in place at events for the Haredi public that are publicly funded, in the public domain, and where there is complete, utter and forced separation."

Specifically, the organizations based their demand to be heard on a High Court of Justice ruling on the issue of gender-separate programs in academia, according to which there is an obligation “to hold a public hearing and establish a factual basis” for determining a legally binding arrangement that allows segregation of the sexes at public gatherings.

In their message to the attorney general, the groups also noted that treating a person differently based on his or her gender in a situation “where a person’s gender is not relevant, impairs the very essence of the right to dignity and equality,” and that “there is no existing regulation that authorizes municipalities to make a decision that would infringe on a constitutional right to equality by forcing gender separation in the public sphere.”

Therefore, the organizations concluded, as long as the law has not been changed, a municipality may not hold gender-separate, publicly funded events in public places.