The probable decision by the Council for Higher Education to open separate classes for men and women at Israel’s universities is a capitulation to ultra-Orthdox (Haredi) and Haredi-nationalist forces. They seek to remake the public sphere in accordance with the rules of gender separation – on the street, in the military, in schools, and now in academia. These evil winds, which have apparently permeated the CHE, must be fought. They must not be allowed to stain the higher education system, whose principles and objectives are equality and education for all.
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The higher education system, in an effort to appease the Haredim and encourage them to enter its gates, is gradually folding. Gender separation, first marketed as a necessary evil that would be temporary and limited in scope, is now getting a broad stamp of approval. Not only has this separation become the norm in Haredi programs for bachelor’s degrees, it is being considered in programs for advanced degrees “in therapeutic professions … for which there is a critical need in the Haredi community,” as Yarden Skop reported in these pages yesterday. To meet these needs, it seems that the CHE is even prepared to accept a ban on female lecturers in classes for male students.
The proposal to expand the Haredi frameworks to students who aren’t actually Haredi may be the clearest expression of the baleful consequences of accepting gender separation. A similar process of separating boys and girls from the earliest primary school grades has destroyed a number of educational institutions in the state-religious stream. The tone is being set by extreme elements, Haredi-nationalist in orientation, who have succeeded in getting state authorities to finance and realize their educational worldview. Now they are seeking to do this in higher education as well.
One of the basic principles of academia is openness – to people, ideas, and the surrounding reality. It’s hard to think of academia without this ongoing discourse, as difficult and complex as it may be. But the CHE plan to appease Haredi students, who will be followed by all the other supporters of gender separation, won’t bring about interaction and debate, but the opposite: It will build walls within the campuses themselves. This undermines the essence of academia, which goes beyond instruction in any particular course of study.
Higher education officials remember the bitter arguments that accompanied the first concessions that allowed special programs to open for Haredim five years ago. The temporary has become permanent and it’s expanding. We should not accustom ourselves to these changes, which are being encouraged by Education Minister Naftali Bennett. He plays a central role in the CHE, whose makeup is more religious than in the past and even has a Haredi member for the first time.
If this proposal for Haredim is indeed approved, the heads of the universities and colleges, the academic faculty and the student population must unite to battle the undermining of academia’s foundations.