Outrage over UTJ bill to gender-segregate bathing at national park springs

Proposal by ultra-Orthodox lawmakers calls for 15% of operating hours to be divided between men and women; opposition MKs slam move as establishing ‘religious state’

People enjoy a hot summer day at the Ein Lavan Spring in the Jerusalem Mountains, July 28, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
People enjoy a hot summer day at the Ein Lavan Spring in the Jerusalem Mountains, July 28, 2021. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Lawmakers from the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party proposed a bill Tuesday to provide gender-segregated bathing hours at springs located in national parks, drawing outrage from opposition lawmakers, who called the move a further step towards establishing a religious state.

MK Moshe Gafni, Deputy Minister Uri Maklev, and MK Ya’akov Asher put forward the bill that aims to make at least 15 percent of the hours at springs segregated. The bill was first reported by the Israel Hayom newspaper.

Gender segregation is a hot-button topic in Israel, with religious movements saying it is needed in order to satisfy the demands of their beliefs, while opponents saying it amounts to discrimination against women. High Court rulings in the past have upheld a law that explicitly bans discrimination on the basis of gender and other criteria in public spaces.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu leads a right-wing, religious coalition including ultra-Orthodox parties, which made far-reaching demands during negotiations to join the government. Critics say Netanyahu compromised on many issues that will upset the status quo between religion and state.

The proposed bill notes that at least 20% of the Israeli population adheres to religious beliefs that prevent them from engaging in mixed bathing and therefore are not able to use some bathing sites. It said that since nature reserves are publicly owned, the lack of segregated bathing hours amounts to state discrimination against those populations.

In response to reports of the bill, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority said in a statement that as custodian of the country’s nature reserves and parks, it “works as much as possible to make these sites accessible to all populations while preserving the values of nature, heritage, and landscape.”

“The authority will study the bill when it is passed and will act accordingly,” it said.

United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on January 18, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/ Flash90)

The INPA noted that it is currently working with the Environmental Protection Ministry on a plan to promote values of nature appreciation for all populations and “this issue [the bill] will also be examined accordingly.”

The secularist opposition party, Yisrael Beytenu, responded that “Gafni and his friends are trying to establish a halachic state,” a reference to the body of rules and principles that Orthodox Jews abide by.

“You don’t have a monopoly on Judaism,” the party said.

Merav Michaeli, who leads the center-left Labor party and who recently attended the gender-segregated wedding of Gafni’s granddaughter, tweeted, “Mr. Gafni, as much as I am happy to dance at your segregated private event, I will fight so that you do not turn our entire country into your private event.”

“Another step in the halachic revolution that Netanyahu’s crazy friends are promoting under his auspices,” she added. He [Netanyahu] doesn’t care, that’s how it is when you have a private pool at home.”

Michaeli vowed to not let the government roll back advances made against gender segregation in public spaces.

The right-wing lobby group B’Tselmo said it backed the move, noting that religious Jews and Muslims do not allow mixed bathing.

“This public also has the right to enjoy natural resources,” it said. “It is not about religious exclusion or coercion, God forbid, but about a solution adapted to each and everyone according to their faith and lifestyle.”

In 2020, the INPA tried a pilot of segregated bathing hours at the Einot Tsukim nature reserve, but the project was stopped due to Justice Ministry opposition to the move. Then-deputy attorney-general Dina Zilber also gave her opinion that a government body may not provide gender-segregated services.

In another move that raised hackles, Gafni on Monday submitted a bill that would make it prohibited to bring leavened goods, or hametz, into hospitals during the Passover holiday. The bill calls for authorizing the Chief Rabbinate to rule on what food items can be brought into medical institutes during the eight-day holiday, and that medical site security guards should enforce the rules.

The proposal drew outrage and scorn from opposition lawmakers including former prime minister Yair Lapid, who said the government was “turning Judaism into religious coercion” and was causing a rift in Israeli society with its legislative agenda.

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