Men and women are not permitted to speak with each other unless it pertains to work, nor to joke or to proffer objects to each other. Segregation between the sexes must be as extensive as possible: at work, on lunch break or during travel, when women are directed to the back of the vehicle and asked “to “minimize talk with the driver.” The “modesty protocol” sent by Modi’in Ilit to municipal employees is an egregious and dangerous deviation from the authority of a government body — which is not authorized to interfere in the lifestyle of private individuals. This is all happening in central Israel, under the cover of an atmosphere that demonstrates empathy for the ultra-Orthodox Jewish demand for segregation of the sexes.
The protocol was drafted a few years ago by Haredi rabbis. Modi’in Ilit distributed it recently to its employees, together with tax forms and an instruction to sign the document. The city later withdrew the directive to sign and return the protocol, saying that it merely sought “to bring [the form] to their attention.”
It doesn’t matter: the mere fact of the document’s distribution underlines the government employer’s demand that its employees comply with the strict standard, whether or not they agree with it. Moreover, this would seem to violate the Prohibition of Discrimination in Products, Services, and Entry into Places of Entertainment and Public Places Law.
The protocol issued by the municipality encompasses a broad range of activities, from commuting to work, a prohibition against personal forms of address, to the demand for separate cloakrooms for men and for women all the way to the final article of the protocol, according to which “husbands must demand and insure compliance with these protocols on the part of their wives.”
The purpose of this all-encompassing dictate is not to protect women, but to restrict as much as possible their presence in the public space. The law requires that this space be equally open to both sexes. From this perspective the protocol — and the municipality’s support for them — clearly violates the dignity and equality of women. There is no “empathy,” nor should there be, for such a violation of the fundamental rights of half the population.
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In 2011 the High Court of Justice ruled that sex segregation on public buses lines serve the ultra-Orthodox community was illegal. “Not every group cultural practice is permissible; it is not always possible to consider the “free” will of a member of a certain cultural group as free will, and not every “free will” should be respected,” Justice Elyakim Rubinstein wrote in the verdict. He also asked “can we resign ourselves, in Israel in 2010 [when the case was heard], to the sentence ‘I understood that, as a woman, I was forbidden to approach the front of the bus myself’?” His words have not lost their validity. The protocol issued by Modi’in Ilit is similarly invalid. The attorney general must clarify to the city that the public space for which it is responsible must be egalitarian.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.