As part of the negotiations to form a government, Religious Zionism and United Torah Judaism have demanded that a law be passed stipulating that gender separation at public events, businesses and services will not be considered discrimination. This law would change the nature of Israel’s public spaces.
The parties’ claim that the amendment would be limited to their own communities is baseless. Once it receives official recognition, doubtless accompanied by generous public funding, separation between men and women will creep into additional walks of life. That’s the nature of religious extremism – it knows no bounds and doesn’t recognize fundamental principles of a democratic society like equality and human dignity.
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Prime Minister-designate Benjamin Netanyahu’s acceptance of this religious/ultra-Orthodox demand is a clear and immediate signal to all women, regardless of how religious they are, that they are second-class citizens.
In response to public criticism, MK Avi Maoz, chairman of Noam (part of the Religious Zionism joint ticket), said that gender separation is actually a great privilege for women themselves, as it allows them “to dance behind a partition as befits their own modesty” and avoid cultural events with men “so they can maintain their dignity.” In a state governed by religious law, women are temptresses who encourage men to sin, so men must supervise them closely. Separation is meant to create a clear hierarchy between the sexes and remind women that their gender comes before anything else, from their education to their job.
Separation between men and women will also necessarily affect the secular public. Women’s integration into combat roles in the army will be halted. Segregated training courses for the civil service will resume. Health maintenance organizations will have separate lines. Women being sent to the back of the bus will be tolerated. A woman whom someone thinks is dressed “disrespectfully” will be banished, as already happens today, because bus drivers will refuse to transport them.
Discrimination against female lecturers in academic programs for the ultra-Orthodox will get worse, and once a law allowing the Knesset to override High Court of Justice decisions is passed, the court will no longer be able to stop this segregation from spreading into master’s programs and other campus spaces like libraries and cafeterias. Male and female students will meet separately at encounters between secular and religious schools in order to be considerate of the other’s sensitivities and values – which always means accepting the norms of “modesty” and separation. The above aren’t horror scenarios, but an existing reality that will now be given permission to expand.
We shouldn’t accept the naïve claims that separation doesn’t harm women. Experience shows that at cultural events, they are sent to the back of the hall, just like they are in a synagogue. They aren’t allowed to board the bus if it’s full of men. And in academic programs for Haredim, their course offerings are more limited and less prestigious. Ultra-Orthodox and Hardal (ultra-Orthodox religious Zionist) politicians are promoting the undemocratic idea that separation in cultural events, services and academic studies is a “natural right” that must be expanded, brick by brick, into other fields. We must not accept this. Public spaces should remain open and fair to both women and men.
The above article is Haaretz’s lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.