The entrance of the Haredim to higher education at academic institutions is a sort of social miracle. Within a group that has leaders who believe that higher education is “worse than Auschwitz” because “spiritual destruction is worse than physical destruction,” a silent revolution is taking place, led by, currently, over 11,000 Haredim, men and women, studying at academic institutions.
Each of them has friends who are straddling the fence, waiting to see whether the first, pioneering generation will successfully integrate into the labor market. If it succeeds, the dam will be breached, the masses will join, and Israel will experience a decisive economic and social change. As you may know, Haredim make up a quarter of current first-grade students; their future is the country’s future.
Many Haredim are ready to cross the educational Rubicon only if provided a life vest — gender and sectoral segregation — that they see as critical to maintaining their lifestyle. Without it, they will remain behind the ghetto’s “walls of holiness.” Yet even those willing to accede to the demand to segregate men’s and women’s classes, whether for liberal or practical reasons, know that their agreement to this demand is problematic: it is a step back in the process of integrating women into all spheres of life — the military (including as combat soldiers), the economy (including top capital market regulators), law (including the recent appointment of Israel’s third female chief justice), and other spheres.
Nevertheless, the Council for Higher Education (CHE) has decided to accede to the Haredi demand, setting policy guidelines allowing separate study frameworks. It was recently even decided to allow gender-segregated study at universities’ main campuses. This decision sparked broad opposition in the Israeli academy and will be soon discussed by the High Court of Justice.
The CHE chose a balanced and cautious arrangement, even if it is not free of difficulties: the segregated studies will be limited to bachelor’s degrees; the segregation will take place only in classrooms, and not in public spaces, which will remain mixed-gender; the segregated classes will be located at the periphery of the campuses; the segregation will be implemented on an interim basis, after which its results will be evaluated. The message is clear: segregation must be of only the limited and minimal scope necessary to enable making higher education accessible to Haredim. Proportionality is the name of the game.
Yet there is currently a bill in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation that seeks to disturb this delicate balance. It proposes that every higher education institution “be permitted to operate any educational program with gender segregation,” on the condition that it encourages the integration of “populations with limited access to higher education for cultural reasons,” that it ensure egalitarian access to both genders, and that it not damage the status of the institution’s faculty.
This bill has significant negative consequences on three levels: First, it may end up serving as a roadblock to the integration of Haredim in academia because it would cancel the current careful policy and allow segregated studies without any real constraints. The bill’s sponsors thus reveal their blindness towards the legal and cultural difficulties that this segregation elicits. Disturbing the current balance may lead to the conclusion that the segregation arrangement is unconstitutional.
Second, the bill would regulate and normalize gender segregation in spaces beyond religious worship or parochial education. The spread of segregation to the public sphere of the universities may also spread to other public spheres, such as public transportation, healthcare centers, public performances, or any other public space.
Third, the bill is a political intrusion into the academic sphere. The impressive flowering of higher education in Israel is a product of the prudence of politicians from the previous generation, who wisely enshrined in law the status of the CHE as a body that separates between the political echelon and the world of science and research. The intent was to ensure academia’s independence from the government, even though it is funded from the state budget, so that it can operate on a professional and unbiased basis. The bill would violate this independence and replace professional decision-making with political decision-making. If it is approved, the bill is liable to pave the way towards political intervention in academic content, thus leading academia to its ruin.
The Israeli higher education system is a pivotal tool for social mobility and narrowing social disparities. It is important to leave this important goal to the professional body charged with carrying it out, far away from the political realm.
Yedidia Stern is vice president of the Israel Democracy Institute and a professor of law at Bar-Ilan University