At the recommendation of Tel Aviv District Court Judge Kobi Vardi, the Tel Aviv municipality rescinded its objection to the gender separation planned for the Chabad-sponsored Messiah in the Square event to be held in Rabin Square on Monday.
The judge didn’t mince words with the municipality. “They want to be separated. This is their Jewish law, and this should be respected,” he told the city’s lawyer. He even went further and accused the municipality of excluding women. “If, from the perspective of Jewish law, this is compulsory for them, then they have no other option. [By banning separation] you will cause the event to be cancelled; you are excluding their women,” he said.
The decision adopts the familiar Haredi assertion that separation is a Halakhic imperative and that the women themselves want it. “With all due respect, this is their religion and their wish,” Vardi said. But this criticism is irrelevant. No one intends to intervene in the religious public’s way of life, which sometimes requires separation during ritual or private events. The discussion should have focused solely on what is permitted and forbidden in a public space.
Judge Vardi had difficulty understanding the opposition to a mehitza – a physical barrier between men and women. Apparently as far as he’s concerned, “voluntary separation” does not undermine equality. One can only imagine the response to some other division under court auspices – an area without Arabs, or without Jews of Middle Eastern or North African origin – so long as part of the square was left for those who still seek a mixed crowd.
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Granting legal endorsement to the separation of any social group in the public square is improper. The report of the interministerial team that examined the exclusion of women stated that a public agency must not “permit any separation between men and women, even if it is ostensibly done at the request of some of the public concerned.” The report’s conclusions were adopted as a government resolution in 2014.
The committee report cited one exception to the ban on separation – an event of a clearly religious nature. Despite the innocent declarations of the organizers, Messiah in the Square is not a religious event, even if a prayer is part of the agenda. From this perspective, the district court’s decision allows separation between men and women in a public space. The decision conveys a message that such separation is permitted, and that it is those who seek to forbid it who must explain themselves.
Judge Vardi concluded his ruling with the hope that, “all sides will learn to see the viewpoint of the other and to build a bridge that spans different cultures, groups and opinions.” But a mehitza in the middle of Tel Aviv’s best-known public space is not a bridge to anything. The municipality did the right thing when it announced that it plans to maintain its position in principle and not approve any future gender separation at events in public areas. Public spaces belong to the entire public and equality in such spaces must be safeguarded.