Editorial

The Minister of Separation

Bezalel Smotrich speaks at the Knesset in Jerusalem, August 2, 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

Bezalel Smotrich’s angry response to the Nazareth District Court’s decision to prohibit gender separation at a concert in Afula’s municipal park is a reminder that any assault on the principle of equality in a democratic country is always an assault on the legal system too. “It’s a stupid legal system,” the transportation minister tweeted, like any run-of-the-mill internet troll. “It’s fundamentalist progressive stupidity,” he added.

Smotrich didn’t make do with hurling general insults at the legal system. He specifically assailed the people behind the decision, as well as the prime minister, who, “in his weakness, allows this insanity.” In response to a tweet that termed the judge “moronic,” Smotrich wrote, “This moronic judge has a name and a photograph, Yonatan Avraham. And there’s also Dina Zilber, who has led this insanity at the Justice Ministry for several years now, and Avichai Mendelblit,” referring respectively to a deputy attorney general and the attorney general. His statements marked a new nadir in the right’s way of talking about state institutions.

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Members of the United Torah Judaism party joined Smotrich’s denunciations. “The judge’s ruling is an evil one, appropriate for Tisha B’Av – the day of destruction,” said MK Moshe Gafni, referring to the day that in Jewish tradition commemorates the destruction of both Temples. Deputy Education Minister Meir Porush termed the decision “anti-democratic” and promised to work “to limit the courts’ power.”

But these aren’t arbitrary decisions by judges and civil servants. Rather, they’re the implementation of a cabinet resolution that adopted an attorney general’s report on the issue in 2014. This resolution was adopted due to the understanding that segregating human beings deals a harsh blow to equality and basic dignity, and it should be limited to events held in private venues, or to clearly religious ceremonies. The concert in Afula, which was supposed to take place this week, was a musical performance. Therefore, gender separation there would have violated the law. Smotrich and his colleagues would do better to stop hypocritically taking the name of democracy in vain. It wasn’t hatred that motivated the judge, but merely a desire to prevent an attempt to destroy equality in the public square.

Nor did Smotrich stop at insults. He also urged the religious and ultra-Orthodox parties to condition their entry into the next government on ending “this secular coercion.” This statement is patently ridiculous. There is no such thing as secular coercion. It’s a conceptual error by people who make cynical use of the tools the democratic system puts at their disposal in order to promote a way of life that runs contrary to that system’s fundamental values.

Even if Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu reprimands his transportation minister, Smotrich’s United Right party and the ultra-Orthodox parties will both be part of his future governing coalition. Such a coalition would be bad for anyone who wants to continue living in a democratic country that is fundamentally secular, and in which women and men enjoy equality in the public sphere.

The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.