Supreme Ct. rejects gender divider for Yom Kippur prayers at central Tel Aviv square

Judges side with lower court and municipality, say decision follows ‘prevailing public policy’ against gender segregation

Michael Horovitz is a breaking news editor at The Times of Israel

Men and women sit together at an event held by Rosh Yehudi on Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv on November 10, 2022. The event featured a mechitzah, or divide. (Courtesy of Rosh Yehudi)
File: Men and women sit together at an event held by Rosh Yehudi on Dizengoff Square in Tel Aviv on November 10, 2022. The event featured a mechitzah, or divide. (Courtesy of Rosh Yehudi)

The Supreme Court on Friday rejected a petition to hold gender-segregated prayers on Yom Kippur at Tel Aviv’s Dizengoff Square.

The justices thus sided with the ruling of a lower court and the Tel Aviv municipality, which forbade an orthodox group from holding the event with a gender divider.

The conflict around the prayer service comes on the heels of instances reported by the Israeli media in recent months of alleged attempts to enforce gender segregation on buses that serve Haredi and secular passengers, as well as amid general clashes over the role of religion in public spaces as part of the protests against the government’s judicial overhaul.

Leading the panel of three judges, Justice Yitzhak Amit wrote that a ban on gender segregation in a public space is the “default,” noting that the Tel Aviv municipality has maintained a policy against physical gender segregation in such spaces since 2018.

“As a general rule, gender segregation in the public space is associated in the mind with the prohibition of discrimination, the violation of equality, and the exclusion of women in the public space,” the ruling read.

“Given the default of banning gender segregation in the public sphere, the ruling of the lower court aligns with the ruling of this court and with the prevailing public policy.”

Related: Annual Yom Kippur mass prayer tests the limits of Tel Aviv’s vaunted liberalism

It also noted that individuals who view gender segregation as a critical aspect of prayer are able to worship at one of the hundreds of synagogues spread throughout the city.

File: Men and women pray separately with a mechitzah dividing them at a synagogue on Bugrashov St. in Tel Aviv, Israel, on May 26, 2023. (Courtesy of Rosh Yehudi)

Since 2019, Rosh Yehudi, a nonprofit that encourages Jews to embrace a religious lifestyle, has organized prayers at the end of Yom Kippur, the Jewish Day of Atonement.

Last month, the Tel Aviv municipality told the organizers that they could not erect a mechitzah in the square – a physical barrier used during prayers to separate men from women in accordance with halacha, Orthodox Jewish law.

Pictures from previous events have shown mechitzahs made from various materials such as wood, metal and wicker stretching for several meters.

In response to the municipality’s decision, Rosh Yehudi announced that the event would not be held unless the city withdrew its stipulation, because this would violate halachic principles. The Tel Aviv District Court on Thursday rejected Rosh Yehudi’s request for an injunction on the decision.

While supporters of the city’s ban on a mechitzah at the event have praised the move as a blow against religious coercion, critics have expressed concern over pluralism and the ostensible lack of inclusion of religious activities in the city.

Amid the clash between religious and secular values, hundreds of protesters this week surrounded a Tel Aviv synagogue used by Rosh Yehudi to protest the appearance of Rabbi Yigal Levinstein, a top figure at the Bnei David pre-military academy who has called members of the LGBTQ community “deviant,” and females serving in the IDF “crazy.”

In 2000, the Supreme Court ruled that enforcing gender segregation in public spaces is illegal if it infringes excessively on individuals’ freedom of movement. However, the ruling made significant exceptions, stipulating it may take place if alternatives exist and depending on the degree of disturbance caused.

Canaan Lidor contributed to this report.

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