Recent incidents of sex segregation in public transportation in Israel are making international headlines. Many Israelis who are part of the pro-democracy protest movement perceive these incidents as one of the troubling consequences of Israel’s extremist government.
Indeed, the current government consists of fundamentalist religious forces, that are undermining gender equality in different contexts. However, the problem of sex segregation in the public sphere is not new. In fact, for more than two decades public policy in Israel, which was formulated also by liberals with good intentions, has publicly funded practices of sex segregation. These policies discriminate against women, and they also change the ultra-Orthodox community from within. They strengthen the extremists, silence the moderates, and create practices of sex segregation that have no parallel in any other country, where there is a large ultra-Orthodox community.
The first arena that underwent segregation processes more than 20 years ago due to state funding is public transportation. Until the late 1990s, there was no sex-segregation on buses serving ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods and the lack of segregation was not considered a problem by most of the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) population. Official data collected in 1997 indicated that every Haredi household in Israel was using public transportation seven times more than the general population.
The initial initiative to move women to the back of the bus came from some members of the Gur Hasidic group. At the beginning, they were not successful. My research of early efforts to separate men and women on public transportation discovered that initially there was a significant opposition to the move among the ultra-Orthodox public. A survey conducted by one of the largest bus companies in Israel in 2000 revealed that Haredi women were especially opposed to the idea of segregated lines, primarily due to family considerations.
Despite this, the bus company was mobilized at the time to establish an extensive infrastructure of segregated bus lines, which would serve ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. This was done with the financial support of the Ministry of Transportation. For almost a decade, bus lines that served ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods carried a special sign, the back door was opened for women, and the bus company allowed Haredi volunteers to enforce the separation between the sexes on the bus, even by force. The ultra-Orthodox public, which was largely opposed to the separation in the beginning, had no choice but to come to terms with the new reality. After a while, there was no longer a need for a special sign on the bus.
A Supreme Court decision from 2011 held that forced segregation is forbidden. However, the justices also declared that “voluntary” separation between the sexes is a basic right of the ultra-Orthodox public. This concept was also shared by many members of Knesset from the right and the left. Unfortunately, none of those praising “voluntary separation” clarified how it is measured in an authoritarian community like the ultra-Orthodox one, where there are clear consequences for any behavior that is perceived as deviating from what is becoming the new binding religious norm. Policymakers also disregarded the fact that large ultra-Orthodox communities in North America get along with non-segregated public transportation.
The transition from the perception that Haredi people must have segregation on buses to the idea that they must study in academia in strictly segregated programs was seemingly natural.
The first academic programs for the ultra-Orthodox were established by private entrepreneurs who decided, in consultation with some rabbis, to adopt a maximal model of segregation that includes the exclusion of female professors from men’s classrooms. The Council for Higher Education, for its part, provided funding for these programs for years, without delineating boundaries regarding the proper scope of separation between the sexes.
A Supreme Court decision determined that the complete exclusion of female professors from teaching in academic programs for men is prohibited. However, the court allowed limiting the employment of women in these programs to elective courses to respect Haredi men who cannot tolerate the presence of a woman in their class. And so, while in ultra-Orthodox private colleges in the New York area, female lecturers teach in the men’s programs without any difficulty, in Israel, a particularly “kosher” public model of higher education for the ultra-Orthodox has been created with the support and assistance of many academic institutions.
To be clear, sex segregation has always been a common practice in the intra-communal domain of the Haredi community. However, in everything related to the public sphere, this community has always behaved with remarkable pragmatism. Just a decade ago, my daughters stood in line with dozens of Haredi boys and girls in Jerusalem to participate in activities that were open to the public. Today, all these activities are offered under conditions of segregation on grounds of religious tolerance. But behind this discourse of rights, there is a fierce struggle between extremists and moderates in the ultra-Orthodox community. It is time that policymakers ensure that public funding does not promote extreme religious agendas that have irreversible consequences for the status of all women.