Israel Faces a New Front of Segregation

Two female soldiers were recently punished because one was braiding the other’s hair outside of the tent. A religious soldier complained that this was an immodest behavior, and the two were disciplined. The public uproar made the military reverse their conviction.  During Israel’s “Pillar of Defense” operation in Gaza, a sign was seen in one shelter in Jerusalem: “This shelter is for men only.” Such cruel and dehumanizing practices are where Israeli society is headed. How did Israel get here?

Taking Israel’s political commentators and pollsters by surprise, Yair Lapid, head of the Yesh Atid party, won 19 out of 120 mandates, second only to Halikud-Beytenu. The central demand of Lapid during the coalition-building negotiations was that the government introduce an “equal burden” reform. This is a code phrase for ending the effective waiver that exempts ultra-orthodox men from military service. When Israel was established, Prime Minister David Ben Gurion agreed to release a handful of religious men from the military. Instead, these men would study torah full time, carrying the torch of the pre-Holocaust Yeshiva life. Over the decades, this waiver became the way out for most ultra orthodox men – about 70,000 per year. Lapid’s demand, then, struck a sensitive chord. Many Israelis are enraged by the idea that some groups are categorically exempt from the risk of death and the expenditure of precious youth in military service. The bitterness towards the ultra-orthodox grows even deeper due to their low participation rate in the labor force, and the fact that many live on government welfare. Lapid’s voters, the middle class productive taxpayers who struggle to make ends meet, are thus seeking a more balanced distribution of national effort.

One factor goes almost unnoticed in the governmental efforts to integrate the ultra-orthodox: the severe damage to sex equality that such integration supposedly requires. Policymakers believe that in order to draw the ultra-orthodox into the military and the labor market, they must be provided with conditions that meet strict religious demands: namely, sex-segregated environments.

The broad assumption that sex segregation is a necessary evil has prompted the military to establish “women-sterile” units for ultra-orthodox men. These men neither serve alongside women nor stationed in co-ed bases. They also never receive instructions from women through the military radio, for women’s voices may lead to sinful thoughts. Ironically, this sidelining of Israeli women comes just when they begun achieving substantial equal opportunities in the military, with more combat and commanding roles open to them.

Academia is another area in which sex segregation is expanding. In recently years, almost every public university and college in Israel has opened sex-segregated degree programs. Such programs, which often receive governmental subsidies, are deeply troubling.

In most programs, male students are promised that they will not be taught by female lecturers (but male professors do teach women). For deans and staff developers, women then become less attractive as faculty members because they are less employable. This adds another hurdle to the already fragile and imperfect sex equality in the employment market.

One might hope that these students would be unwittingly exposed to general campus life, mingle with people different from them in the cafeteria, or catch a glimpse of a posting on an interesting extra-curricular talk, thereby becoming more exposed to the academic spirit. Alas, these special programs are held far from the main campuses, in special facilities inside ultra-orthodox neighborhoods, precluding such exposure.

It is hard to see how subjects such as law, psychology or nursing can be taught while the academic institution agrees to abide by a fundamentally non-egalitarian rule, contradicting basic humanistic and liberal values. Some reports indicate that teachers in those programs are instructed to modify the curriculum as to not challenge students’ worldview, or provoke their rabbis. A psychology instructor recently reported that she was directed to exclude evolution from a course on the human mind. Similarly, it is not unlikely that a constitutional law professor might prefer omitting central cases involving same sex discrimination, or the welfare rights of single mothers.

As the U.S. Supreme Court has understood in Brown v. The Board of Education, separate is never equal. Women who are required to cover their bodies, sit at the back of the bus, walk on the other side of the street, and speak softly to avoid sexual provocation are bound to internalize how their society sees them. Their bodies are marked as sinful, and they have little legitimacy to act, think, create, and express themselves. Moreover, the academic programs open to women are different than those open to men, focusing on traditional “pink collar” jobs such as teaching, or art therapy, whereas men can study subjects such as economics or computer programming.

Advocates of such segregated programs see them as a temporary phase, after which these men and women will become part of the general labor market and Israel’s social texture. But none of these advocates can say at what point Israeli society will draw a red line and refuse to respect segregation demands. Why should a male nursing student agree to treat women patients, for example, if the government catered to his expectation never to come in contact with women throughout his studies? The government already encourages employers to establish women-only call centers or computer-chip assembly sites. Why shouldn’t the ultra-orthodox rightfully feel entitled to work in all-male or all-female environments? The ripple effect on secular women is already felt, and it is bound to expand.

Israeli liberals are too quick to assume that sex segregation is an unavoidable condition to prompt the ultra orthodox to carry more of the social burden. The readiness for cultural pluralism must always raise the question “whose culture are we respecting?” There is ample evidence that many men and women within the ultra orthodox community are adamantly opposed to military, academic, and work-force segregation, just as they were to sex-segregation on buses. In the latter case, the government simply ignored their voices and collaborated with the extremists who used bullying techniques to impose those supposedly more pious religious practices. We should not repeat this mistake.

-Yofi Tirosh

Dr. Yofi Tirosh is a member of the Faculty of Law at Tel Aviv University

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