The Limits of Autonomy in Israel

The Tel Aviv Labor Court's decision that a religious high school must pay compensation to a teacher fired for being pregnant while single should send a message to all those communities that enjoy broad autonomy in determining their lifestyle.

The Tel Aviv Labor Court's decision that a religious girls' high school must pay NIS 250,000 in compensation to a teacher, who was fired because she became pregnant while single and is raising the child alone, sends a clear message to the leadership of the religious Zionist education system. Although the right to a separate education system is enshrined in law, this right is not unlimited. Other basic rights - in this case, the right to motherhood - are sometimes more important.

The terrible sin of the teacher in question - who taught at the school for eight years and defines herself as adhering completely to a religious lifestyle - was her decision to become pregnant by means of a sperm donation. In 2009, she informed the school that she was pregnant, at which point she was told she could not continue teaching there. "You have acted in a way that utterly contradicts the values of the school and its concept of family-values education," the principal wrote the teacher.

The labor court's verdict details the various consultations the school held, including with Rabbi Haim Druckman, a leading religious Zionist rabbi with influence in the Habayit Hayehudi party, who determined that "there is no place for employing such a worker." It is regrettable to discover that in the Israel of 2013, such opinions can still be heard, based on the assumption that a pregnant, unmarried woman cannot serve as an educational role model.

The labor court rejected the school's claims that its dismissal of the teacher without a hearing came under the aegis of educational autonomy, which the Orthodox school system has enjoyed for many years now. In this regard, the ruling resembles the High Court of Justice's ruling on an ultra-Orthodox school in the settlement of Immanuel that separated girls of Middle Eastern origin from those of Ashkenazi origin, citing ancient custom.

The desire of the school's leadership to protect its students from what it deems a teacher's improper behavior was outweighed by more fundamental rights deriving from the Basic Law on Freedom of Occupation and the Basic Law on Human Dignity and Liberty. It must be hoped that other communities that enjoy broad autonomy in determining their lifestyle will take the court's message to heart.