Who’s Holding Back Haredim?

The education minister is defending gender segregation on campus for his own political interests and not for the benefit of the ultra-Orthodox Jews who need to be integrated into academia and the workforce.

Ultra-Orthodox men studying at a yeshiva in Jerusalem.
Gili Cohen Magen

“Narrow-minded.” That’s how Education Minister Naftali Bennett chose to label 12 senior lecturers who took him and the Council for Higher Education to the High Court last week in an attempt to block plans to open gender-segregated classes on university campuses.

“Do the lecturers want to stop Haredim from integrating into higher education and the economy? It’s easy to stick it to the Haredim and then complain [about them]," he said, referring to ultra-Orthodox Jews. "We chose to act. I won’t give up on the mission of integration of the Haredim,” Bennett proclaimed on Twitter.

Bennett is right about one thing. Integrating young Haredi men and women into higher education and the workplace is an important mission. In fact, it’s the most important mission facing not only Israeli society, but also Jewish communities across the world. One in 10 Jews today is ultra-Orthodox. It is the fastest-growing sector of the Jewish people and undergoing radical changes before our eyes. As a community, the Haredim are no longer capable of sustaining themselves financially, not even with the help of generous government handouts.

As individuals, a vast number of young Haredim are no longer prepared to accept a life of pious and penurious subsistence and an intellectual existence limited only to holy texts approved by their rabbis. The nature and success of their integration will decide not only their own future but will have a profound impact on all Jewish communities, including secular and progressive ones.

But Bennett is wrong. Because the narrow-minded approach to integrating Haredim is accepting that in order to do so, we have to accept the rules invented by the most reactionary of rabbis as the basis for any compromise. The High Court petition contends that the new plan effectively bans female lecturers from teaching some of the courses on their own campuses, which will now be for men only (it goes without saying that the gender-segregation affects only female lecturers since the rabbis are fine with male lecturers teaching classes of female Haredi students). That the plan entails sacrificing the equality of female lecturers should in itself be a powerful argument against the scheme. But Bennett insists that this is a necessary concession, as without it, “they won’t come.” He argues that “we live in the real world, not a utopia and in it.”

Naftali Bennett, education minister and head of the national-religious Habayit Hayehudi party, walks into the weekly cabinet meeting.
Mark Israel Salem

This narrow-minded argument is based on three fallacies. First, there is nothing in halakha (Jewish law) against a man hearing a lecture from a woman, if that lecture is taking place in a public space where other men and women are in attendance. Small numbers of perfectly observant Haredi students are already studying in these mixed environments. Second, creating gender-segregated bubbles on campus won’t improve integration, it will only serve to enhance the much wider segregation between Haredim and the rest of society. And third, creating university courses in which 29 percent of the faculties will be barred from teaching (yes, that it is a shameful proportion of women in Israeli academia — though in the BA-level courses and subjects to be taught in the segregated courses, the proportion is much higher) will by necessity make these second-rate courses. For Haredim who insist on a totally segregated academic environment, there are already totally segregated campuses, but the academic level is much lower than that of the universities. Quite rightly, they want the opportunity to study at the highest level and Bennett should be applauded for wanting to help them achieve that.

Men enrolled in a nursing program at an Orthodox Jewish college in Jerusalem
Tali Meyer

But by extending segregation to the universities, he is doing them no favors. Not only does this mean excluding female lecturers because of their gender, but it is also doing an injustice to the Haredi students themselves. They are being offered second-rate degrees and since the number of segregated courses will not encompass the entire range of studies that the universities offer, it will also be severely limiting their scope. This is not opening up Israeli academia to the Haredim. Instead it is forcing them to accept a very watered-down and inferior version of it.

Bennett is not really helping Haredi men and women enter Israeli society. What he is really doing is entering into an unholy alliance with the Haredi rabbis and politicians who know that they have little choice but to allow their followers to study for degrees. If they forbid it, their adherents will do so anyway. In a desperate attempt to retain control over their lives, the religious leaders have cut a deal with Bennett, who is eager to be prime minister after Benjamin Netanyahu. He is hoping to garner the support of the Haredi parties by allowing them to impose their rules over the campuses.

This is not the first time the education minister has sacrificed the education of young Haredim for his political ambitions. He did so upon entering the ministry two years ago when he cancelled all plans to make the teaching of a minimum level of “core” subjects – mathematics, Hebrew, English and sciences — a condition for government funding of Haredi schools where 15 percent of Israeli children study. He did that, because he is narrow-minded enough to put his own political future before the future of hundreds of thousands of children as well as the overall good of Israeli society.

The real obstacle for young Haredi men and women entering university is not the presence of female lecturers. The great majority of them want to study with the best lecturers, regardless of their gender. The real obstacle isn’t even the rabbis who, if they could, would prevent their disciples from engaging any form of academic study. After all, the demand for an academic education in the Haredi community came from the grassroots. From thousands of individuals who, seeking more opportunities in life, defied the rabbis and forced them to rescind bans. No, the real obstacle is a state-funded Haredi education system which does not equip its graduates with the knowledge and qualifications with which to continue on to university. Bennett never tires of trumpeting the sterling work he has done in boosting the level of mathematics studies in Israeli high schools. He is less happy to speak about the way he has agreed to deprive an entire community of even the most basic math skills.

Speak with any of the Haredi students who have succeeded in making it into university. They either had the good fortune to study as children in non-Haredi schools or they had to spend years of their lives and money they could ill afford, making up for what they didn’t learn in school.

Now Bennett plans on spending hundreds of millions on creating segregated enclosures on campus. If the objective is to attract thousands more Haredim to university, then the money would be much better spent on free pre-academic courses and scholarships for those deprived of a basic education by their rabbis, with the collusion of Bennett and every previous Israeli government of the last four decades. That is the way to integrate thousands more Haredim. Not by offering them dumbed-down, sub-standard university courses where the rabbis continue exerting control over their lives.