In the wake of the storm around the separation of men and women at a concert in Afula, on Thursday Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit issued guidelines that will enable local governments to hold gender-segregated events. That, in violation of a policy of his office since 2013 prohibiting a government ministry or other public authority from holding a public event at which men and women are separated, with the exception of an event that is primarily a religious rite or ceremony. In other words, Mendelblit has given the green light to a government authority imposing the separation of men and women.
Despite Mendelblit’s declaration of the importance of gender equality, his guidelines will not stop the demand for gender segregation at public events for ultra-Orthodox Jews. This will become the norm for the various groups of religious and traditional Jews. The door that Mendelblit opened by means of “special contexts” which permit the exclusion of women will not be easily closed. If the courts accept his interpretation, the role of women in the public sphere will be diminished.
The criteria specified in the document issued Thursday for permitting segregation (including that the event be necessary or unique and the segregation be voluntary) are vague. Some local governments might view the new criteria as an invitation to comply with the strict standard. From now on, under conditions that are not difficult to meet, a local authority may separate men and women. Very soon it will face outright demands to do so, as the experience of the past few years teaches us — in academia, in the military and on streets where “modesty signs” have appeared — in which the supporters of segregation have eroded gender equality, with the support of the state.
On Sunday afternoon the Haifa District Court is scheduled to hear a petition submitted by the Israel Women’s Network against the city’s decision to fund a concert for Haredi men only. Ahead of the hearing, the attorney general announced that the city government had “failed to meet the burden of explaining the justification for holding the event in its present framework.” That would seem to be an appropriate position. But Mendelblit’s response implies that from now on, segregation at events that are open to both sexes is legitimate. He has made segregation normal, the new golden rule. The red line that until now had prohibited separation at events not of a clear religious nature has suffered a setback.
The right to equality is one of the foundations of any democratic society, and the system of law and government in Israel. No one, not even the attorney general, has the authority to curtail this right and subordinate its implementation to religious or cultural considerations, in the name of “showing consideration.” The struggle over the character of Israeli society requires setting inviolable red lines: There can be no public authorization for gender segregation and discrimination.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.”
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