Given the growing acceptance of demands for separation between men and women in various realms of life, with different government ministries even encouraging this, the address delivered by former Supreme Court President Aharon Barak on the ultra-Orthodox campus of the Ono Academic College gives dangerous legitimacy to the trend toward gender separation and religious extremism.
The proper response to these trends is not cooperation or any degree of acceptance, but a principled rejection and a consistent, uncompromising struggle over the image of a country that claims to champion equality, in which both sexes are entitled to the same degree of freedom and respect.
“When in Rome, I do as the Romans,” said Barak, explaining why he agreed to speak at the college’s Haredi campus in Jerusalem to male and female law students separated by a divider. It’s hard to accept this explanation; a lecture hall is not a synagogue and an academic conference has no intimate dimension. If Haredi men have a hard time sitting in a lecture hall with women, as is customary in universities, then the task of “doing as the Romans do” is theirs.
We must also reject the argument that by agreeing to the separation, Barak was “respecting” the views of the Haredi public. There is no connection between religious beliefs, about which every person must decide for himself, and baseless, unjustified sex segregation in a public space — certainly not in an academic framework, which is supposed to uphold edification, openness and equality.
Proponents of sexual segregation try to justify it by claiming that it’s “temporary” or “proportionate.” Another argument is that even if there is some offense to women, the goal of integrating Haredim into higher education is more important. Remarkably similar arguments were made when the separate tracks for Haredim in the army were established and expanded, and now with regard to employment, with the approval (temporary, we hope) that the National Labor Court gave this week to continue the men-only course for Haredim seeking senior positions in the civil service.
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This is a chain of false assumptions. The temporariness, as it were, is the loophole that makes separation permanent, as evidenced by the steady increase in the proportion of boys and girls studying separately in religious schools, or the demand to remove any restriction on gender separation in academic studies. The promotion of one population (Haredim and the more stringent among the religious Zionist community, who are quick to follow in their footsteps) cannot come at the expense of another group (women). As soon as the demand for separation was accepted by the state, any other option was abandoned, with Haredi and even national-religious groups lining up on the stringent side. This concept will bring about a fundamental change in Israel’s public sphere.
There are basic principles that cannot be compromised. Equality for all people, including women, is one of them.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.