In the past five years the Council for Higher Education’s approach to separating men and women at ultra-Orthodox academic programs has changed through and through. From a limited solution with limited scope it has become a natural right that has expanded in stages until there are campuses “clean” of all sign of women.
The attempt to normalize gender segregation has been led by Education Minister Naftali Bennett and the chairwoman of the Council for Higher Education’s Planning and Budgeting Committee, Prof. Yaffa Zilbershats. The influence of this process goes beyond academia; it will influence other areas, from the army to the labor market.
In recent years the Council for Higher Education has argued that gender segregation is a necessary evil: It may go against the fundamentals of higher education such as openness and pluralism, but the desire to bring the ultra-Orthodox into higher education is more important – and therefore the harm to women is justified. The council promised that the harm would be minimal: Gender segregation would be limited to classrooms. Not anymore.
In a recent response to a High Court petition by academics against the institutionalization and expansion of gender segregation, the council said that separating men and women is permitted across an entire campus and between campuses of the same institution, and can take the form of separate days or hours for each gender as long as it’s not carried out “by coercion.” The council doesn’t elaborate on the ways to check whether the separation is “voluntary” and simply promises “to significantly address” institutions that force segregation.
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It turns out that the council’s handling of institutions that violate its instructions is ingratiating and meaningless. Also, the distinction between segregation “by coercion” and “voluntary” separation is a dangerous profession of innocence: You don’t need a guard to keep women off campus or outside the library during certain hours. A sign announcing hours for each gender and requesting or demanding “consideration” will achieve a similar result. Only a few men, and even fewer women, will dare to act differently.
This month, a study by Hebrew University law lecturer Netta Barak-Corren questioned the council’s argument that separate programs are needed to get the ultra-Orthodox into colleges and universities. But not only are the Council for Higher Education’s chiefs refusing to examine the basis for the segregation policy, they’re expanding it. In the background you can already hear demands from the hardalim – the religious-Zionist ultra-Orthodox community – for “adjustments” to suit them. And that will come too.
The attempt to separate genders in academia is already harming women’s equality at the workplace because they are blocked from teaching ultra-Orthodox men. In the future this distortion could become a precedent for other areas, from the army to the job market.
Bennett’s segregation campaign must be opposed publicly. There is no justification for such significant harm to the basic rights of women – be they ultra-Orthodox or secular, students or faculty members.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.