An event at a large municipal park in the northern Israeli town of Afula this month could provide the grist for debate for years over the clash between freedom from gender discrimination, freedom of religion and what it means to be a Jewish state.
The Afula municipal government sponsored a concert in the park Aug. 14, featuring popular ultra-Orthodox singer Motty Steinmetz. An advertisement for the event said that it was “for families, with full separation.” In the context of the ultra-Orthodox community, full separation means separation between men and women to ensure that they don’t have physical contact.
News of the gender-separate event in a public space and under municipal sponsorship prompted a lawsuit by the Israel Women’s Network – although on private property and under private sponsorship, it would certainly be permissible. A newspaper editorial on the controversy noted Afula City Hall had organized 360 mixed-gender public events this summer in the park. So, what’s the problem with one gender-segregated one?
In 2014, the Israeli cabinet passed a resolution stating no government authority could impose gender separation in a public place other than with the “narrow and limited” exception of “an event that is essentially a religious ritual or religious ceremony.” In this month’s legal tug-of-war on the issue, a district court judge ruled the Afula municipality could not impose gender separation at the event. The ultra-Orthodox Shas party then asked for a rehearing and a different district court judge ruled that it could go ahead as planned.
The women’s network immediately appealed to the Israeli Supreme Court, but it was already the day of the concert and although the Supreme Court convened the same day, the concert was already underway. After the fact, the Supreme Court ruled the separation was illegal, but Attorney General Avichai Mendelblit hinted that the 2014 cabinet resolution may be too restrictive and said he would revisit the issue.
It’s important to point out Israel was founded as a Jewish state from a national and ethnic standpoint – the homeland of the Jewish people – not of the Jewish religion. The dominant culture of its founders was secular and it remains largely secular, despite the roughly 25 percent of the population that is either Orthodox or ultra-Orthodox. I would not have moved here to live in a Jewish theocracy.
Although I can see both sides on the Afula case, in the end, I come down against any gender separation in public spaces. Permitting anything else is a slippery slope. First it’s at a concert in a park. Then it’s specific days in the park and then the park as a whole is permanently designated as gender separated. After all, why should ultra-Orthodox men have to share a park with scantily clad secular Jewish women? And from parks, why not impose the same limitations on streets in ultra-Orthodox neighborhoods. If it sounds far-fetched, I should note that it has been tried.
The issue has also surfaced on public buses, where ultra-Orthodox passengers have been unsuccessful in attempts to impose gender separation so that ultra-Orthodox men have no physical contact with women. Earlier this year, a woman trying to get on a bus enroute to the ultra-Orthodox Tel Aviv suburb of Bnei Brak was not allowed to board because all of the “women’s seats” were occupied. The bus company later apologized to her and said the driver would be reprimanded.
This issue is not going away. I would object to any restriction that impinged on ultra-Orthodox freedom of religion, but when it comes to public spaces in Israel, be they parks or bus seats, they must be open to everyone.
Cliff Savren is a former Clevelander who covers the Middle East for the Cleveland Jewish News from Ra’anana, Israel.