These are bad times for the building blocks of democracy in Israel. During the past few weeks, the independence of academic institutions, the judicial system, civil society, the arts and the media have come under intense assault from decision-makers charged with upholding Israel’s democratic ethos. The ministers of Education, Justice, Culture and even the prime minister have tried to outdo one another in silencing criticism, quashing discontent and restraining voices which question government policies and suggest alternative directions for the country.
These efforts follow a pernicious, and by now familiar, pattern. Their objective is to delegitimize opponents, discredit their efforts and create effective deterrents to those who dare to question the hegemonic narrative of those who have controlled the government in recent decades. In the process, they also serve the immediate political purposes of their purveyors: the more outrageous, blatant and harmful the schemes to close down open public spaces, the more their authors hope to gain additional political capital (Bennett’s initiation of an academic code of conduct probably induced Netanyahu to promote further restrictions on human rights organizations; Miri Regev’s latest attempts to exclude cultural events and performers antithetical to the nationalist worldview she has appointed herself to safeguard were stepped up just as Ayelet Shaked renewed the quest to upend the seniority system in the High Court and thus undermine its autonomy). Systematically and persistently, the multi-faceted campaign of Israel’s current powerbrokers is succeeding in gradually stripping Israeli life of its liberal veneer.
The consciously accelerated pace of democratic slippage usually begins with the quiet — often stealthy — introduction of specific policy initiatives below the public radar while attention is diverted elsewhere. If adopted without undue public response except among those affected, they then gather steam — and considerable traction.
Academic freedom, the cornerstone of open societies, is the most glaring case in point. These days, the country is being rocked by debates over Professor Asa Kasher’s scandalous proposals to quash the heart of academic freedom — the inculcation of doubt in order to uncover new truths — under the guise of preventing politicization on Israeli campuses. But there were hardly any reactions outside the ivory tower when, almost surreptitiously, on May 23 (the day of Donald Trump’s visit to Jerusalem), Israel’s Council on Higher Education (CHE) approved a five-year, NIS 15 billion program to augment Haredi accessibility to universities and colleges through the entrenchment of blatant gender discrimination. For those who might have missed the news, it is now official: not only will men and women study in separate frameworks in institutions of advanced learning, but Israel’s smartest women will now be banned from some lecture halls in order to avoid offending ultra-Orthodox sensibilities.
This is how gender separation has been officially reinstated in Israel in 2017. For years, the Haredi sector has been virtually absent from the corridors of higher education (in 2010 there were between 5,500 and 6,000 ultra-Orthodox students in all frameworks). A fundamentally worthy but practically flawed experimental program was initiated in 2011 to expand their number with a view to increasing their options for integration into the workforce and enhancing their contribution to the Israeli economy. Five years later, a decision was made to incorporate an expanded version into the new five-year plan for higher education (2016-2022), despite the fact that the initial attempt fell short of expectations. The rise in the number of students to 11,000 only partly met 75% of declared goals. Only 35% of registered Haredi students were male and their dropout rate was over 50%. Although new frameworks were established, their integration into home institutions was only partially implemented. The curriculum, however, was expanded and a concerted effort was made to raise academic standards, which still fell well below those of the country’s universities and colleges.
In all these settings, a gender separation between male and female students was instituted, and while male lecturers were allowed to teach in all classrooms, female lecturers were prohibited from lecturing to men. Protests yielded two appeals to the High Court of Justice and rulings which mandated greater transparency in the planning of further stages.
Indeed, when the CHE published a report and recommendations for an expanded program aimed at raising the number of ultra-Orthodox to 19,000 by 2022 (6% of the projected student population, which today encompasses over 315,000 students), increasing the number of men in the program, enhancing structural and substantive integration and maintaining gender separation in order to attract more Haredi students to academic institutions and to the advanced workforce, hearings were held to hear objections. Ultimately, the CHE — while admitting that the perpetuation of gender inequality created a “very complicated problem” — opted to once again sacrifice the principle of equality on the altar of Haredi integration, while allotting a paltry NIS 10 million to rectifying issues of gender inequality, which it itself has now exacerbated. It has thus dealt a crushing blow to the notion of equality in general.
The institutionalization of forced gender discrimination in the halls of academe is unconscionable. In the first instance, prohibiting female lecturers from entering men-only classrooms inevitably contributes to their already paltry representation in the upper rungs of academe. Women constitute about 58% of students in all institutions of higher learning in the country (over 56% of first degree students; 58.6% of second degree students and 58.4% of doctoral degree candidates). Nevertheless, their faculty representation dwindles as they climb the academic ladder: while women account for almost 50% of non-tenured lecturers, they comprise 36% of senior lecturers, 27% of associate professors and only 16% of full professors. They have been unable, despite their qualifications, to break the thick glass ceiling. Inevitably, the program adversely affects their livelihood, their chances for promotion, their dignity and their social standing.
The academic effects of this discrimination are no less destructive. By not exposing some students to women’s scholarship and perspectives the program denies them familiarity with state-of-the-art knowledge and insights from the best and brightest minds in the country. This cannot but affect academic standards in these gender-gated settings and, by extension, in the workplace.
The damage to academic institutions (which almost uniformly rely on public funding and hence stand to lose large subsidies and student stipends should they not accede to the parameters of the program), however, is particularly alarming. It entrenches gender discrimination as a norm and thus constricts that open exchange which is at the heart of academic freedom. The resulting structural and ethical harm is inestimable. Indeed, in broader terms, the willingness to bow to the dictates of the most extreme elements in Haredi society goes far beyond the purview of academe and infiltrates society as a whole.
Expanding access to higher education to all sectors of society is unquestionably vital to invigorating the economy and cultivating pluralism and tolerance. But narrow economic and political considerations of those at the top cannot excuse the channeling of public funds to a cause — however important — whose implementation involves practices which defy the essence of vibrant to democratic life.
The consequences for Israel’s democracy are thus excruciating. Sanctioning gender segregation in the academic world sets structural constraints on academic freedom which make it easier to then impose political restrictions in the form of government-dictated codes of conduct. What those who justify these incursions forget is that academic freedom is not a luxury of the educated elite; it is the foundation of democratic societies. Without democracy, no academic freedom — and hence innovation and creativity — can flourish. The same holds true for open spaces in the media, the arts and cultural institutions. The slippage in one area seeps into other fields, until democracy itself is assailed.
This is why compromising on essential norms opens the door for further concessions on values and then to deep democratic fissures. Those who didn’t think the ouster of women from academic classrooms sufficiently worthy of response have now to contend with the contraction of open public spaces and with it the critical thinking and the culture of speaking truth to power which they encourage in a broad range of fields. At least now the public pushback is more pointed and principled. Its success is vital to the resuscitation of Israel’s democratic and human ethos.