ISRAEL AT WAR - DAY 138

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'It addresses discrimination against devout Jews, Muslims'

Environment minister announces sex-segregated hours at parks, prompting legal review

Justice officials need to authorize the project, which would extend opening hours for religiously observant visitors at two natural springs in August

Cnaan Lidor is The Times of Israel's Jewish World reporter

An undated photo of visitors bathe in one of the pools of the Einot Tsukim oasis in the Judean Desert. (Courtesy of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority)
An undated photo of visitors bathe in one of the pools of the Einot Tsukim oasis in the Judean Desert. (Courtesy of the Israel Nature and Parks Authority)

Environmental Protection Minister Idit Silman announced Tuesday that two nature reserves near Jerusalem will remain open outside of the usual operating hours this month for visitors who wish to bathe in natural springs without members of the opposite gender or sex.

But shortly after the plan’s announcement, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority (INPA), which operates under the ministry and runs the parks in question, said it would not comply immediately with the plan until it is approved by Justice Ministry officials.

The plan, and the complications around it, touch both on resource-sharing by religious and secular Jews, and on the compliance of bureaucrats and jurists with the policies of elected officials — two of the most controversial issues dividing Israelis with regard to the current government’s judicial overhaul.

The change announced by Silman’s office concerns Einot Tzukim, an oasis in the Judean Desert, which under the new arrangement would open for segregated bathing at 6:30 a.m. instead of 8 a.m. on Sundays and Wednesdays. At Ein Hanya, a spring near Jerusalem, closing hours would be extended by three hours until 8 p.m. for segregated bathing on Wednesdays and Thursdays.

Many observant Orthodox Jews deem mixed bathing immodest and refrain from it. Some secular and less devout visitors object to the introduction of segregation in public areas, which they perceive as an unreasonable infringement on their civil rights and as religious coercion.

By extending the opening hours, “one party benefits and neither is compromised,” Silman said in a statement. The decision to open early at Einot Tzukim rather than close late was made so as not to interfere with wildlife coming to the oasis’s water springs after hours, the statement added.

Environmental Protection Minister Idit Silman attends a conference in Haifa, Israel, on March 21, 2023. (Shir Torem/Flash90)

The move, which Silman’s office called a pilot program, is the latest in a string of controversial initiatives meant to accommodate the sensibilities of religious visitors.

In 2020, the INPA on its own initiative announced segregated bathing times at Einot Tzukim on two dates in September, at the expense of unsegregated bathing at some of the oasis’s pools. But amid protest, the INPA postponed the plan pending legal examination and ultimately scrapped it altogether.

Queried by The Times of Israel on whether the Israel Nature and Parks Authority intends to follow the minister’s instructions, the INPA’s spokeswoman, Shlomit Shavit, said: “We’re making preparations and intend to implement the plan, but it’s still being examined by legal experts and we’re waiting for their position.” The INPA has not updated on its website the opening hours for the two reserves, and has not communicated a change in those others on other media. “We will make the information known when it is cleared” by the legal experts, Shavit said.

In a written statement, an INPA spokesperson wrote that it was “examining the possibility” of instituting segregated bathing. “The Authority will be able to realize the bathing [plan] after it is approved by relevant parties, including the Justice Ministry,” the statement read.

Spring-fed waters at the Einot TZukim Nature Reserve near the Dead Sea. (YouTube screenshot)

Israel Hofsheet, a nonprofit whose mission statement includes promoting “religious freedoms,” said in a statement that it would seek an injunction against the pilot program. “We cannot allow a reality in which Israelis need to check whether there’s gender segregation in the site they wish to visit. We must not mainstream this,” Uri Keidar, the nonprofit’s director, wrote in a statement.

Shai Glick, the director of Btsalmo, a nonprofit that describes itself as devoted to addressing what it calls a “disregard for the human rights of Jews” in Israel, said the pilot program “finally addresses the discrimination against devout Jews and Muslims” at nature reserves.

The news about the segregated bathing pilot comes amid a wave of protests over the efforts of the hard-right government — which includes multiple religious parties — to transfer some powers from the judiciary to the executive and legislative branches. It has intensified preexisting tensions dividing those who seek to diminish the role of religion in government and those who wish to preserve or increase it.

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