Opinion |

Israel’s Access for ultra-Orthodox Men Excludes Women

A bill to allow gender segregation at colleges and universities — an Israeli invention — reflects reactionary discrimination that might spread elsewhere in society

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Students protesting against harassment of women at the Hebrew University, April 2015.
Students protesting against harassment of women at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, April 2015.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation is expected to review a dramatically significant bill in a few days. The bill affects the academic world, but if it’s approved by the committee, it could change the face of Israeli society.

Proposed as an amendment to the law governing the Council Higher Education, the legislation has an innocent subtitle: “Encouraging accessibility to higher education.” It states that universities and colleges can hold gender-segregated classes to “encourage the integration in institutions of higher learning of populations whose accessibility to higher education is restricted for cultural reasons.”

The bill is signed by seven MKs from Shas, Habayit Hayehudi, Kulanu, Likud and United Torah Judaism, including Israel Eichler, Yakov Margi and Bezalel Smotrich.

When the Council for Higher Education launched a program in 2012 to integrate ultra-Orthodox students by holding separate classes for men and women, it declared that such segregation contradicted the values of higher education and Israel’s character as a democracy. And so it limited the right to gender-segregated classes to the ultra-Orthodox, and only for undergraduates. 

Now thousands of ultra-Orthodox students study in sex-segregated classes every year, and there are bright sides to the fact that the ultra-Orthodox have access to higher education. But the whole process has been rife with problems like compromising on academic standards and workplace discrimination against female lecturers, who are not permitted to teach men. It has also infringed on the rights of female ultra-Orthodox students to equality and dignity, because academic institutions are overseeing the modesty of their dress, discriminating against them in awarding scholarships and not giving them access to all tracks open to men.

But all these problems are dwarfed by the danger of the spread and institutionalization of sex-segregation elsewhere in Israel. If the bill passes, separate courses and degrees will become common in academic institutions and be open to groups that have gotten along just fine without them. We recall that many ultra-Orthodox Israelis opposed gender segregation on public buses, but once it became the norm, they had to go along with it. That was also the case with separate education for boys and girls in elementary school for the religious-Zionist community, which began as an internal debate and is now the norm.

Accessibility is a worthy cause when it’s based on the principle of equality. That’s an important principle in democratic societies, which aspire to equal opportunity by making adjustments and lifting barriers. But in Israel its name is being taken in vain, and this promotes exclusion.

The bill is an absurd Israeli invention existing nowhere else in the world: by giving access to one group, access to others is impeded. Instead of increasing equality, it becomes a zero-sum game. Moreover, it comes at the expense of women, a group the academic world opened its doors to only a moment ago in history and is still dealing with the challenge of accepting. And this all comes in the name of equality, integration and tolerance.

Anyone who thinks segregation will stop and not become the norm in Israel should see what’s already happening and imagine our lives in a few years. As Haaretz’s Or Kashti reported this month, the state is increasingly institutionalizing the idea that there’s nothing too terrible about men and women working, studying and serving in the army separately under state sponsorship and public funding.

In a visit to the military’s officer training school this month, a senior officer discovered that the women cadets were seated behind a barrier at the end of the hall. “We thought you’d prefer it that way,” a soldier told him. That’s not much different than the female attorneys who were asked last month to sit at one end of the room during a continuing-education course on family law, or female lecturers who miss a job opportunity because they’re prevented from teaching men-only classes.

The normalization of segregation is already here. The bill has nothing to do with integration; it will only promote reactionary discrimination.

NOTE: The writer and other senior faculty members have petitioned the High Court of Justice against gender segregation at colleges and universities.