The New Mechitza

Gender segregation comes to Israel's publicly funded universities.
By | Nov 18, 2019
2019 November-December, Israel

Since the founding of Israel’s Bar-Ilan University in 1955, all kinds of students—male and female, Orthodox and secular, Israeli and Palestinian—have studied side by side. Today, however, the publicly funded research university, the country’s second largest, has reserved a set of buildings on the edge of campus for gender-segregated classes. There, ultra-Orthodox men—most dressed in white shirts and black pants with tzitzit hanging over their belts and their heads covered by fedora-like black hats or large kippot—sit in classrooms, paying careful attention to the lecturer, who is always a man. But what may look like an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva is in fact a class leading to an undergraduate degree in a subject such as management or economics. In Hebrew slang, these classes are called sterili (“sterile”)—without women as either classmates or teachers—and are considered “safe” for ultra-Orthodox men whose rabbis forbid them from studying with or learning from women. As a result, ultra-Orthodox women study separately—for degrees in education or a similar field—in another building. Unlike their male counterparts, they can be taught by both females and males.

Bar-Ilan, located outside of Tel Aviv in Ramat Gan, is one of approximately a dozen publicly funded colleges and universities that have over the past few years introduced gender-segregated classes in an effort to draw the ultra-Orthodox into higher education. These programs, once found only at private religious institutions of higher learning, are now encouraged and funded by Israel’s Ministry of Education. In 2011, before these programs started, 6,000 ultra-Orthodox students were enrolled in degree programs, according to the Ministry. By the 2017–2018 academic year, that number had risen to more than 13,000, and Israel hopes to increase that number to 19,000 by 2021–2022.

While some schools, such as Bar-Ilan, have sectioned off parts of their campuses and created gender-specific courses of study, others such as the Jerusalem College of Technology, Achva College and Ruppin College have instituted separate days for study, exams and library use. A divider called a mechitza, traditionally used to separate men from women during worship, can now be found in some classrooms. Indeed, last year, at the Jerusalem campus of the Kiryat Ono Academic College (a private institution that receives supplemental public funding), former President of Israel’s Supreme Court Aharon Barak, considered by many to be Israel’s foremost defender of civil rights, addressed a packed audience in which men and women were separated by a mechitza. Barak spoke from the men’s side, out of sight of most of the female students.

“In order to bring the ultra-Orthodox into academia, we must make adaptations to their religious beliefs and cultural mores.”

Moishe, 32, a student at Kiryat Ono’s Jerusalem campus, says, “I attended an ultra-Orthodox yeshiva, and I have never been in a large room where men and women sit together. The rabbis would never allow me to study with women. It would be too much for me. I might think thoughts that I, as an ultra-Orthodox man, should not think.” Moishe is thankful that the school’s segregated program is making it possible for him to become a lawyer so he can earn a good living, but he’s afraid to give his full name. “Even this program isn’t accepted by all of the rabbis in our community, so I must be discreet,” he says.

The Ministry of Education heralds these programs as a way to integrate the ultra-Orthodox, also known as Haredim, into higher education. “In order to bring the ultra-Orthodox into academia, we must make adaptations to their religious beliefs and cultural mores,” says Yaffa Zilbershats, head of the Ministry’s Council for Higher Education’s Plan­ning and Budgeting Committee. “Truly liberal and democratic societies must find a balance between competing values for the public good, such as multicultural adaptations and equality for all…even if there is some damage to principles of equality towards women.”

The programs, unsurprisingly, have raised serious concerns in a country where, despite legislation mandating equality between the sexes, academia has not yet proved to be a reliable path to career success for women. “Gender segregation is an assault on the deepest tenets of academia and a democratic society,” says Yofi Tirosh—head of the law school at Sapir College in Sderot and a faculty member at Tel Aviv University—who has been a leading voice in arguing against it. She believes that the state has no business funding gender segregation anywhere and certainly not in academia. “A university must be based on liberty and equality. How can we teach professions such as law, education and social work when the teaching institution is violating the most basic humanistic values?”

“Gender segregation is an assault on the deepest tenets of academia and a democratic society.”

Strict ultra-Orthodox rabbis enforce gender segregation based on the belief that undue interaction with women, even wives, distracts men from Torah study. Both laws and customs forbid physical contact and even conversation for pleasure between people of the opposite sex who are not married or closely related.Men are also prohibited from staring at women’s bodies or clothes. “According to the ultra-Orthodox, being a woman is an essential quality—that is, a woman is first and foremost, and at all times, thought of as a woman, whether or not this is relevant to the issue at hand,” says Tirosh. “This essentialism can never be considered neutral, because it keeps women in their place. And it can be used to justify other differences—in salary, in position or advancement, for example.”

That women cannot teach men but men can teach women has serious ramifications for women in the job market. “When hiring new faculty, the primary consideration should be academic excellence, along with a commitment to diversity and equality and to hiring women,” says a male Bar-Ilan professor (who did not want his name used), adding that gender segregation has put him in an “untenable” position. “We know that women are at a disadvantage in academia. Fewer women are hired, fewer women are given tenure and fewer women advance to senior positions.” The new programs, he says, put women at even more of a disadvantage.

Gender segregation at universities also contributes to its normalization throughout Israeli society, says Tirosh. “The creation of women-free spaces has a dangerous potential for being legitimized and spreading, especially in a country that is currently struggling with ultra-Orthodox demands for the exclusion of women in public halls, at municipal events, in public spaces like libraries, medical clinics and cemeteries, on streets and buses, and even at formal government events.”

These kinds of demands in settings other than universities have become more frequent since Israel’s ultra-Orthodox became power brokers in Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s successive governing coalitions. In May, a municipal official in Ramat Gan refused to allow a 17-year-old girl to sing at an Independence Day event after religious men in the audience objected. Despite state laws against it, some bus companies continue to run “strictly kosher” lines—buses on which women are expected to sit at the back. There has also been a growing number of incidents in which women and teenage girls have been prevented from boarding buses because they were wearing shorts. And the use of the mechitza has increased: In mid-July, Rafi Peretz, the interim minister of education, addressed a professional conference on attention deficit hyperactivity disorder in teenagers that was open to the general public in which men and women sat separately during plenary sessions, divided by a mechitza, while other sessions were designated male or female only.

In August, Israel’s Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit issued an opinion that stated that even though gender discrimination is formally illegal in Israel, publicly funded gender-segregated events are acceptable “in certain circumstances.” The list of those special circumstances is long and broad, including if the separation is “desired by the target audience” and if “conditions for men and women are equal.” This, many feminists warn, could pave the way for more gender segregation in public spaces.

The story of how David Ben-Gurion, who would become Israel’s first prime minister, agreed to exempt religious men from army service and work so they could devote themselves to full-time Torah study is widely known. Concern that a large number of religious Jews had been killed in the Holocaust and most centers of Jewish learning destroyed, combined with his need for their political support, led Ben-Gurion to provide religious Jews with government stipends and welfare benefits. At the time, the ultra-Orthodox population was tiny; today it is 12 percent of Israel’s population. And given their high birthrate, the number of ultra-Orthodox is expected to rise to 16 percent by 2030, according to the “Statistical Report on Ultra-Orthodox Society in Israel.”

The economic consequences of this demographic change are staggering. Since only half of Israeli ultra-Orthodox men participate in the workforce, close to half of ultra-Orthodox families live below the poverty line, according to a 2016 report from Israel’s National Insurance Institute. By 2030, the annual cost to the Israeli economy to maintain this status quo will be approximately $11.25 billion, not including loss of tax revenue. Politicians and social scientists have been warning about an impending social and economic crisis, and state and civil society institutions have begun to search for ways to integrate the Haredim into the workforce.

It’s not an easy task. The Haredi educational system, carefully guarded by rabbis and leaders against state intervention, does not provide its students with the skills needed for more lucrative occupations or for admission to college or universities. As a result, most Haredim are relegated to poorly paying jobs in gender-segregated workplaces. Women, who are considered exempt from Torah study, are often the only employed adults in the family, working as teachers in ultra-Orthodox schools, at call centers and in low-wage coding jobs.

Some organizations have established vocational programs for the ultra-Orthodox, especially in the fields of mechanics and tech support, but the charge to bring the ultra-Orthodox into academia has been led by the Ministry of Education’s Council for Higher Education, which is responsible for the accreditation and regulation of all of Israel’s institutions of higher learning, including its 12 private colleges. More importantly, it funds and oversees the budgets of 9 universities, 29 colleges, and 21 teachers’ colleges.

Zilbershats, head of the Council for Higher Education’s Planning and Budgeting Committee, oversees the approximately $3.4 billion yearly budget provided by the Ministry of Finance. The first woman in the history of the State of Israel to serve in this position, she was appointed in 2015 by then-education minister Naftali Bennett, the leader of the right-wing religious Jewish Home Party, and has turned out to be a champion of gender segregation.

Under Zilbershats, the Council has offered generous funding to universities and colleges that would take up the challenge of bringing ultra-Orthodox into academia. At first, the programs were to be limited in scope—offered only at the bachelor’s level to graduates of Haredi schools, which do not prepare their students for matriculation exams—and held in close proximity to the main campuses so that both male and female religious students could use university facilities such as libraries, labs and cafeterias.

Two of the country’s most prestigious universities met the guidelines while offering only minimal adaptations. Hebrew University started a one-year gender-segregated preparatory program, for both men and women, to teach the basic math, English and study skills needed for undergraduate classes. After that, students are fully integrated into regular programs. So far, several hundred ultra-Orthodox students have participated in the program, and most have made the transition, says Orna Kupferman, a professor who was vice-rector of the school when the program was established. Like Hebrew University, Tel Aviv University provides a program for ultra-Orthodox students, which includes additional support in basic academic skills. According to the university, approximately 100 ultra-Orthodox students currently participate while also attending mixed-gender classes.

Other schools, however, have expanded gender segregation beyond transitional programs, establishing separate areas, separate days of study, separate days for exams and separate facilities. Some, such as the Hadassah College in Jerusalem, have instituted “modesty regulations” for women’s dress and behavior in the ultra-Orthodox programs. Rochele, an ultra-Orthodox graduate student in education at Hadassah, who asked not to be identified by her full name, says all female students were required to sign a document promising to dress modestly, cover their heads completely if they marry, and behave appropriately and modestly at all times. If she violates these terms, she says, she could be expelled.

“The Council cannot enforce the limitations that it set up,” says Kupferman. The deeper problem, she adds, is that there is no such thing as “moderate” gender segregation. “Gender segregation is a monster that will never be satiated, and will always demand more.” In fact, the Council has announced that it is expanding the program. In the fall semester, graduates of accredited ultra-Orthodox schools were permitted to attend gender-segregated classes (previously, only those who attended unaccredited programs were eligible). In addition, universities are now allowed to offer segregated master’s programs as well as undergraduate ones.

Given the challenges of forming a new governing coalition in the wake of September’s elections, there is no sign that these policies or the political atmosphere that shaped them will change. Education Minister Peretz has been outspoken about his preference for gender segregation. Opponents to the policy hope they will have more luck in the courts. Tirosh is spearheading the group of academics that has petitioned Israel’s Supreme Court to put an end to the gender-segregated programs. The court has heard arguments several times over the years, but the case is still pending.

Another argument against the new gender-segregated programs is that they don’t achieve their intended goal of an educated Haredi workforce. In May, a stinging report from Israel’s state comptroller revealed that nearly half of ultra-Orthodox men and one-third of women who are enrolled in the gender-segregated courses drop out before completing their bachelor’s degrees. And the dropout rate, nearly twice the rate of non-Haredi students, is not the only concern. Netta Barak-Corren, a law professor at Hebrew University, disputes the underlying assumption that gender segregation can solve the problem of ultra-Orthodox integration. In an independent survey, she found that only 44 percent of the ultra-Orthodox interested in higher education regarded gender segregation in the classroom as a major consideration; gender segregation in campus facilities is important to only 23 percent, and only 16 percent said that the gender of the lecturer matters to them at all.

Journalist Tali Farkash, an ultra-Orthodox feminist, agrees. “Most of the ultra-Orthodox students are already defying their rabbis and their communities,” she says. “Gender segregation isn’t going to bring more of them in.” In fact, she says, many ultra-Orthodox would prefer to study in the regular, mixed-gender programs, which are on a generally higher level. While they could ostensibly choose to enroll in such programs, the very existence of gender-segregated programs makes studying in a mixed program seem less religious. “Reality creates perception,” says Farkash, “especially in this atmosphere of increasing extremism within the ultra-Orthodox community.” The real problem, she says, is that leading ultra-Orthodox rabbis want their communities to remain apart from the rest of Israeli society.

Some of the strongest advocates, however, are other ultra-Orthodox feminists. One of those is Adina Bar-Shalom, who founded the Haredi College of Jerusalem for ultra-Orthodox men and women, for which she was awarded a 2014 Israel Prize, Israel’s highest civilian honor. (The college closed because of lack of funds and enrollment in 2016.) “Society must be willing to allow the ultra-Orthodox public to study on its own terms,” and not to do so is “intolerant” and “not democratic,” she insists. A Bar-Ilan University student named Zahava, who does not want her full name used since not everyone in her community approves of her studies, agrees. “I am sick and tired of non-ultra-Orthodox feminists telling me that they are going to save me from myself, that I am suffering from some sort of ‘false consciousness’ and that they will give me the opportunity to be a ‘full woman,’” she says. “That is paternalism and arrogance, and secular coercion. If Israel is a multicultural society, why can’t other women accept that my voice is different and that mine is a genuine, feminist voice?”

Tova Hartman, dean of humanities at the Kiryat Ono Academic College and a founder of Shira Hadashah, a halachically observant congregation with egalitarian values in Jerusalem, also sees virtues in gender segregation. “Feminism has taught me about invisibility and to be sensitive to those who have not had the same privileges as I have,” she says. Hartman believes that ultra-Orthodox women and their needs have been invisible in Israeli society. “They have not been able to enter the halls of academia on their own terms,” she says. “The separation is what enables them to get a degree and fulfill their intellectual and academic goals. How can anyone view this as a violation of human rights?”

The question of gender segregation in publicly funded universities, then, may boil down to competing views of multiculturalism that could lead to drastically different futures for Israel. Hartman insists that Israel’s multi-culturalism include the ultra-Orthodox. “Isn’t there a value in providing a higher education to someone who doesn’t look like me and doesn’t think like me?” she asks. “The secularists accuse the ultra-Orthodox of living in a shtetl, but if the secular do not meet the ultra-Orthodox, then they, too, are living in a shtetl. We must learn to live together.”

But when living together means learning apart, whose rights are paramount? “The challenge of rearticulating the identity of the State of Israel includes the challenge of determining what women’s place will be,” says Tirosh. As she sees it, women are merely pawns in a larger battle. “The ultra-Orthodox establishment knows very well that whoever defines the role of women in Israel will eventually control our political, economic and ideological lives.”


3 thoughts on “The New Mechitza

  1. DAVID FROST says:

    Meh. On the one hand, folks want more Haredim to be educated and able to earn a living. On the other, folks seem to disapprove of the idea that Haredim might be allowed to get this education in an environment suitable to their lifestyles. But I don’t see the harm. Will this really marginalize women? I think not.

    The average monthly income for women in Israel is (according to the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics) 8,188 NIS. The average monthly per capita income for Haredim is only 3,500 NIS. If anyone is marginalized, it’s Haredim.


  2. h gottlieb says:

    and what is news about that ????

  3. Phil Rosen says:

    Absolutely incredible and a major step back for higher education. What is becoming to the State of Israel.

    Phil Rosen

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