The decision by Tel Aviv-Jaffa Mayor Ron Huldai not to allow an event which segregates men and women to take place in Rabin Square – the city’s main square, and Israel’s most famous – is an important moment in the ongoing battle over the nature of our public space. In the face of growing demands that women be pushed to the margins, Huldai reminds us that public spaces must be open to all and equal for all, and that these principles must be defended. Pluralism does not mean legitimizing discriminatory treatment of half the public.
Now, this battle must go beyond the bounds of Tel Aviv. Other mayors should also join the struggle against the exclusion of women.
Tel Aviv’s precedent-setting decision was made in response to an appeal to the municipality and Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber by the Israel Women’s Network, which urged them to take action against women’s exclusion from the dais and segregation in the audience at an event Chabad was planning to hold in Rabin Square later this month. An opinion by Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit gave local governments the option of not approving gender separation at events taking place within their jurisdiction, after due consideration of the nature of the event, the venue and the expected composition of the audience (Haaretz in Hebrew, Or Kashti, June 19).
Unlike other local governments and many government ministries, which have collaborated with the demand for women’s exclusion in the name of “modesty” or “cultural suitability,” Tel Aviv officials weren’t afraid to give clear expression to fundamental democratic values. In his remarks on Tuesday, Huldai drew a connection between upholding human rights and gender equality.
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The message sent by Huldai’s remarks isn’t appropriate only for religious people, who, whether because they agree or because they’re afraid, often fall in line with a norm of extreme segregation. It’s also relevant to secular people who, whether due to apathy or confusion, have consented to major changes in the nature of the public space.
The claim that it’s possible to hold an event at which the segregated women will be equal misses the point: The very fact of segregation, not its conditions, is humiliating and discriminatory. It’s sometimes difficult to discern this creeping exclusion, which is well-known in other contexts, from the army through academia to the labor market. But Tel Aviv’s decision reestablishes what seemed to have been forgotten: A gathering in a public venue cannot sabotage the principles of the public space.
The precedent set by the Tel Aviv municipality is a healthy liberal response that seeks to draw red lines, just as principals and students in the city refused to cooperate with or display tolerance for demands that boys and girls be separated at encounters between schools or at a sporting event planned by the Education Ministry. This principle is always valid, in other places as well. It’s not only Tel Aviv’s public space that must be kept free.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.