Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai recently decided to ban a Chabad event that was supposed to take place in Rabin Square, because men and women attending the event would be separated by a barrier. As someone who finds such separation of men and women unsavory, part of me celebrates his decision. But when I examine the reasons offered for the decision, I can’t help concluding that it has nothing to do with moral and “liberal” values, as it pretends to do.
As reported by Or Kashti in Haaretz (6/22/2018), the main reason for the ban consists of two related claims: first, that public spaces “belong to and must be open to everyone,” and second, that separation of men and women in public sphere “constitutes discrimination.”
A physical barrier between men and women on Rabin Square would in fact amount to temporarily closing certain parts of public space to men and women, thereby violating a general principle that public space must always be open to everyone. The thing is, there is no such general principle in operation. In Huldai’s Tel Aviv, public roads are often closed to traffic for marathons and parades. During concerts in Park Hayarkon, only those who pay for the expensive tickets can enter certain parts of the park. Furthermore, more to the point, there are already sex-separated public spaces in Tel Aviv: toilets, locker rooms, and beaches. So, banning the Chabad event by appealing to the noble-sounding principle that public space must always be open to all does not stand up to scrutiny.
What about discrimination? At the event, men and women would be separated, according to the space assigned to each gender at the Square. But calling something “discriminatory” not only characterizes it as involving some sort of distinction between people, but also makes a moral judgment about it (namely, that it is morally unacceptable). So, we cannot just point to a distinction between the sexes and automatically conclude that it is discriminatory — we must explain why the distinction in question is morally unacceptable.
The municipality seems to have argued that it is morally unacceptable because the people passing by the Square “would be harmed” in that 1) they wouldn’t be allowed to go to certain parts of the Square, and that 2) they might be offended just by the sight of sex-separation.
Again, these claims are hardly defensible. I have already pointed out that in many cases, a part of the public is already not allowed to enter certain public spaces (toilets, marathons, concerts, beaches). There is no obvious reason why the Chabad meeting is any more morally objectionable than these other cases. Moreover, the potential for someone to be offended by a sight that he or she doesn’t approve of is surely not a good argument to ban it. I am sure that a lot of people are offended by some other events, political demonstrations, gay parades (or even marathons!), but that doesn’t mean that those things must be banned to protect their precious feelings.
Kashti states that the real fight is about the general norm concerning sex-separation: whether the default should be that it is allowed (except for certain exceptional cases), or that it is not allowed (except for certain exceptional cases). But he goes on to praise Huldai’s decision because “[t]he default isn’t that segregation is allowed, but the opposite. Without apologizing or stuttering, Mayor Ron Huldai showed that the liberal camp also has values worth standing up for.”
I would have thought that being a “liberal” was about allowing everything (by default), unless there is a clear moral objection to it, and certainly not to ban something merely because it makes some part of the population feel offended. But it appears that new “liberals” only care about designing public space in their own image, without worrying about making a solid rational or moral case for it.