Opinion

In Israel, a Bad Taste of Coercion by the Left

The gender-segregated event at a municipal park in Afula, in northern Israel, on Wednesday, August 15, 2019.
Gil Eliahu

The director of Israeli reality chose to end the story of the concert in Afula in a very original and wise way. Both sides claimed victory. The concert was held with the sexes segregated, just as the Supreme Court was granting the Israel Women’s Network’s appeal against such an eventuality.

Despite the happy ending, there is still room to wonder about the way events developed, mostly because, if Afula City Hall had been forbidden to hold the concert with the sexes segregated, it would have been hard not to feel that an injustice had been done.

With all due respect, the “public space” doesn’t have its own will. The public space belongs to the real public, and if the real ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, community in Afula – men and women together – want to hold an event with the sexes separated, it’s hard to see a ban from the outside as anything but coercion.

“We regret that the Supreme Court justices chose irrelevant legal chicanery over common sense and logic,” said the ultra-Orthodox Shas party about the ruling. It was hard not to think about my Haaretz colleague Rogel Alpher, who views people like himself as the legal owners of common sense and logic. On Thursday, Alpher wrote in his Hebrew-language column on television: “A disturbing and ridiculous about-face is taking place in Israel in the public debate on tolerance.”

It seems that a fear of the terrifying possibility that everything might be upside down has engulfed Alpher; maybe those who are immersed in a “false consciousness” aren’t those whom Alpher describes as believing in an “imaginary friend” but are actually the nonbelievers.

The explanation for the U-turn that Alpher senses can be found in the term “common sense.” It expresses the shared sense, and people who feel as Alpher does are turning into a minority among the Israeli “common.” We aren’t there yet, but it would be better to ask ourselves: If most Israelis live a Haredi lifestyle, will common sense keep viewing sex segregation as exclusion? If a majority of Israelis observe the commandments, will common sense keep viewing the religionization of the public space as religious coercion? Of course not.

That’s why the Israel Women’s Network made a mistake when it decided to appeal to the court based on the claim that sex segregation in the city square severely harms the moral values of equality and “separate is never equal.” But what do you mean by “never?” Separate public toilets, for example, harm equality?

Sex segregation damages equality only in a world of liberal values that denies the differences between men and women and the division of labor between them. But women in the Haredi world want separation. “Separate is never equal” only for those who believe that equal means the same as me.

Michal Gera Margaliot, the managing director of the Israel Women’s Network, praised the court’s decision. “It makes no sense that a father can’t go with his daughter to play at the bouncy castles, and a mother is separated from her sons at the entrance to a public park.”

There is only one problem with this legal premise: The Israel Women’s Network didn’t represent an actual father who turned to the group because he had been separated from his daughter, or an actual mother who had been separated from her sons. The description is false and doesn’t say anything about things as they really are from the inside. This is a description of separation from the outside that imposes a world of values foreign to the way events actually are.

President Reuven Rivlin spoke about a new Israeli order in which four tribes (secular, religious, Haredi and Arab) share the public space. In such a situation, it would be better if the Israel Women’s Network petitioned the court only when it represented real women, not imaginary ones.

If Haredi women believed that a concert with the sexes separated hurt them, the Israel Women’s Network would have had a serious case and the group would have received across-the-board support for its appeal. But because in this case, the group doesn’t represent a single real woman but only the abstract struggle for equality, its victory leaves a bad taste of coercion.