Orthodox parties demand legalization of gender-segregated public events

Outgoing Prime Minister Lapid likens policy to Iran’s, drawing outrage amid renewed debate over whether separate seating is inherently discriminatory

Judah Ari Gross is The Times of Israel's religions and Diaspora affairs correspondent.

File: Ultra-Orthodox Jews at a concert featuring Haredi singer Motti Steinmetz, in a show where men and women in the audience sat separately, in the northern Israeli city of Afula on August 14, 2019. (Meir Vaknin/Flash90)
File: Ultra-Orthodox Jews at a concert featuring Haredi singer Motti Steinmetz, in a show where men and women in the audience sat separately, in the northern Israeli city of Afula on August 14, 2019. (Meir Vaknin/Flash90)

Orthodox parties issued a fresh demand to Prime Minister-elect Benjamin Netanyahu as coalition negotiations renewed on Sunday, seeking to pass legislation that would permit gender segregation at publicly funded events.

Having separate male-female seating arrangements at public events and in public spaces falls afoul of laws against discrimination. This includes forcing women to sit in the back on buses that primarily go through religious areas; having separate classes for men and women at state-backed educational institutions; and having separate seating at government-funded concerts and plays. Some religious Israelis, however, maintain that forbidding gender segregation, which they see as a religious commandment, is discriminatory against them as it means they are not able to fully take part in public events.

As part of ongoing coalition talks, the Orthodox United Torah Judaism and Religious Zionism parties together demanded a legislative workaround to anti-discrimination laws to permit such gender segregation, the Israel Hayom daily reported Sunday.

This proposal joins several contentious religion-and-state demands made during coalition negotiations of the presumed next government, including dramatically restricting Israel’s immigration policies, revoking recognition of non-Orthodox conversions to Judaism, and overturning — at least in part — reforms to Israel’s kashrut authorities.

This latest demand was denounced by soon-to-be-opposition lawmakers and religious rights groups as religious coercion and gender-based discrimination.

Outgoing Prime Minister Yair Lapid compared the proposal to the theocratic policies of Iran.

“At a time when brave women in Iran are fighting for their rights, in Israel [Religious Zionism party leader Bezalel] Smotrich and his ultra-Orthodox nationalists are trying to place women behind barriers and legalize separating men from women. Where is Likud? Why are they being silent? This isn’t Iran,” Lapid said.

Labor party leader Merav Michaeli similarly denounced the move, saying it was anti-democratic.

“We warned that a coalition without women would harm women, and they are already demanding that not only they but also the law will be able to put women in the back. Women are no less equal. Nobody has the right to decide for anyone else where they sit, what they wear, or whether or not to terminate a pregnancy. This is the fight for our democracy,” she said.

The head of religious freedom organization Hiddush Uri Regev warned that such a bill would be the first of many to impose religious law on Israelis.

“This is just an example of the efforts that they are planning to destroy the State of Israel’s identity as a Jewish and democratic state by those who see democratic government as an abomination and who will nevertheless cynically use it to expand religious coercion and to harm the values of freedom, as a step toward a state of Jewish law,” Regev said.

Not all opposition lawmakers saw the proposal as inherently undemocratic, however. Matan Kahana, a religious lawmaker from the National Unity Party, said accepting such gender segregation is necessary if the government is truly interested in bringing ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, Israelis into general society.

“There are populations for whom gender segregation is a way of life. Forbidding these populations from having public events with gender segregation is itself an imposition. No Israeli citizen will be required to partake in these events or to study in institutions where separation is practiced. Whoever values integrating Haredim into Israeli society cannot impose their way of life on others,” Kahana said.

This was the not the first time that Orthodox parties have demanded such legislative workarounds to the prohibitions on gender segregations. After the April 2019 elections, during coalition that ultimately failed to produce a government, Likud reportedly agreed to such a demand from United Torah Judaism.

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