Attorney General Avichai Mandelblit waded into the debate on public financing of gender-segregated events for the religious community on Wednesday, issuing a statement saying that they may be legally permissible under “special circumstances.”
Mandelblit offered his legal opinion in response to an appeal brought by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party against a decision by the Nazareth District Court to prohibit the Afula municipality from holding a gender-segregated musical performance at a public park.
The ruling, which was handed down on Sunday, forbade organizers from forcibly seating women in a separate area behind a men’s section during the performance, saying it contravenes the principle of equality.
Shas called the ruling unreasonable and said it harms the ultra-Orthodox community’s right to hold cultural events according to its customs. It added that to enforce separate seating at the concert would not be coercive since the intended audience prefers segregated seating anyway.
In response, the Nazareth District Court offered a compromise solution on Wednesday, suggesting that the amphitheater be split in three, with a woman’s section above a men’s section as well as a mixed-gender area.
An “equal division” is not created by having “women in the back, but [by creating] a vertical division,” the judge said, adding that “there will be a family compound for those who are interested.”
Moshe Gafni of the ultra-Orthodox UTJ party rejected the compromise, fuming that “the judge will not tell us how to live.”
In his letter, Mandelblit said he intends to hold an urgent meeting “in order to outline the legal standards and special circumstances in which such events may be held.”
He added, however, that “segregation between men and women in the public sphere is a problematic practice that harms equality.”
While Mandelblit wrote that he did not have cause to intervene in the current case given that the Afula municipality had agreed not to enforce gender segregation, he did state that “in principle, there may be special circumstances in which a local authority may hold a separation event for the ultra-Orthodox public.”
On Sunday, Afula City Hall acknowledged its acceptance of the court decision but expressed frustration that it could not hold the event for the ultra-Orthodox.
“Out of 360 summer events being held [in the city], the municipality had requested to put on one event for the ultra-Orthodox public to enjoy according to its customs. We are sorry that this was not possible. We will respect the court’s decision,” the municipality said in a statement.
Following the ruling, the Israel Women’s Network called on Haifa’s mayor to cancel a men’s-only concert for ultra-Orthodox residents in the northern city set to take place in late August.
During failed coalition talks earlier this year, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu was reported to have agreed to an ultra-Orthodox demand to allow for gender segregation in public spaces.
A leaked draft of Likud’s agreement with the Haredi United Torah Judaism party stated that “within 90 days the government will amend the law in such a way that it will be permissible to provide public services, public study sessions and public events in which men and women are separated. This separation will not constitute discrimination according to the law.”