The Hebrew University of Jerusalem was founded in 1918 to enable Jewish intellectuals to flourish and to free them from the burden of the numerus clausus – the cap on the number of Jewish university students and their separation from non-Jewish ones. The university was considered one of the greatest Zionist projects, a reflection of the intellect’s emergence from the ghetto.
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But last week, the student union there decided to allow gender segregation at its events. Female-only and male-only areas would be provided for those who wanted them.
Granted, the university quickly made clear that gender-segregated events would not be held on campus. Still, this is a worrying decision for several reasons. First, this is another slippery slope. It doesn’t take long for “voluntary” separation to become enforced segregation. Fundamentalist activists call for additional separation, and after caving in once, the institution finds it easy to do so again.
The second reason is that a war is being waged over gender segregation in Israeli academia, and Justice Hanan Melcer will soon submit his ruling on the issue to the High Court of Justice. This is a classic case of good intentions leading to terrible results.
The goal: to bring more ultra-Orthodox Jews, Haredim, into academia. The result: the entry of Haredi Zionist (“Hardal”) extremists, who seek to push women out of public positions. It’s not by chance that the Kohelet Policy Forum – which, with foreign funding, is trying to turn Israel into a fundamentalist state under the guise of liberalism – joined a court petition seeking to expand this segregation.
As Yofi Tirosh – a leader of the anti-separation petition that has been working its way through the courts since 2014 – wrote, the project to integrate Haredim by allowing segregation has failed. After the Finance Ministry spent about 1 billion shekels ($310 million) on the project, the dropout rate for male Haredi students exceeds 50 percent.
Moreover, she said, the degrees they receive are “worthless, teaching certificates that have undergone instant academicization.” The poor education in which we have imprisoned the Haredim doesn’t allow them to meet academic standards. After a decade of segregation, all that remains is the suppression of women’s rights.
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When an academic institution allows gender-segregated classes, it undermines the rights of female faculty members. There’s an entire set of classes they can’t teach. And when a university has to decide whom to promote, it now has an institutional interest in promoting men, who can teach all the classes. The government has decided that it’s preferable to oppress women for the sake of advancing Haredi men.
This experiment has failed, but promoters of separation never intended it to be limited to academia. The goal was segregation throughout Israeli society. You can already hear people demanding that employers provide “a comfortable working environment for the ultra-Orthodox” – that is, one without women.
Female soldiers have been paying the price of drafting Haredi and Hardali men for a decade already. Haredi zealots have even begun restricting women’s entry into certain streets, and the government has mounted only feeble resistance.
A free society doesn’t hide its women. It doesn’t push them to the back and doesn’t create professions where they're restricted. A free society means that all people are part of the community, even they violate every moldy law from the Bronze Age.
Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton, on whom many hopes have been pinned, now has an opportunity to appoint an opponent of gender separation in academia to head the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council for Higher Education. She must give to the current generation of women all the tools that she had available to reach her present position. We must not let religious fanatics push a majority of the population backward.