We are a small group of professors who have been investing much time and efforts since 2013 to mobilize the higher education system to accommodate ultra-Orthodox students without institutionalizing extreme sex-segregation. We volunteer our time and expertise, and recruit other colleagues, activists, and pro bono lawyers. We are independent, operating under no institutional umbrella.
The ultra-Orthodox (haredi) Jewish community in Israel, which has lived in poverty and seclusion until recently, is amidst a dramatic revolution of opening up to Israeli society-at-large. This revolution is highly opposed by the ultra-Orthodox community leaders. In deference to a broad range of considerations, the Israeli government considers it appropriate to encourage men from the ultra-Orthodox community to enter the labor market. Six years ago, it was decided that higher education is one means of achieving this. The cause is noble, however, the means of achieving it poses serious threats to Israeli society, to women in Israel and to Israeli academia. Our aim is to promote this cause, while alleviating concerns regarding the inherent threats – by alternative methods.
The policy adopted for integrating ultra-Orthodox Jewish men into higher education is fraught with compromises – the main one being segregation by sex. Ultra-Orthodox Jewish men study at remote academic campuses, with full segregation between men and women, assured that they will not be taught by women lecturers. This policy is based on the untested and unsubstantiated assumption that ultra-Orthodox Jewish men will not participate in higher education, without sex segregation.
This segregation recalls dark and shameful chapters in human history. It means that today, in the State of Israel, one can earn an academic degree without ever seeing a woman in the classroom – as a student or as a lecturer.
Lately, it has been decided to continue with this segregation in higher education, and to even expand it to other realms. This decision poses a threat to the prevalent and pluralist higher education in Israel, potentially making the exception the norm. Moreover, such a precedent threatens to make gender segregation the norm in other domains in Israel. Today there is already massive pressure to extend gender segregation in the public domain, from cemeteries to hospitals and to the Israeli army.
The policy of gender segregation in higher education is not only dangerous but has already been proven a failure. Despite many resources invested (many of which have been diverted to enable segregation by gender or social sector), enrollment rates of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men in higher education have not increased, drop-out rates are extremely high (over 50%) despite a lower than average academic level in most institutions which they choose to attend, and graduates (especially those who studied in segregated environments) are having difficulty finding employment.
We are a group of faculty members in Israel's leading universities who are worried about this process. We are strongly in favor of making high-education accessible to the Jewish orthodox community in Israel, and we promote alternative programs for achieving this goal.
We are active in the legal, media and academic fronts, in opposition to the adverse implications of the government means of executing its policy, which is detrimental to higher education in Israel, but more importantly – to Israeli society and the principle of equality between women and men.
On the legal front, we have petitioned the Supreme Court of Israel against the government’s original plan. Recently, we also submitted a petition again the decision to continue and expand this plan. On the media front, we have turned the issue of gender segregation into a public debate, both in the social networks and in the mainstream media. On the academic front, we are promoting an alternative plan for the successful integration of ultra-Orthodox Jewish men in higher education. This plan includes intensive studies in preparatory programs specifically designated for ultra-Orthodox Jewish men, followed by integration in existing academic institutions in Israel, as regular students. Eligible students will receive financial aid scholarships. They will have tutors and supplementary lessons, as well as spiritual support and guidance (including construction of synagogues at the institutions participating in this plan).
Helpful and extensive mapping of the debate around sex segregation in academia, and its impact on other areas of public life, here: Eata Prince-Gibson, The New Mehchitza, Moment Magazine, Nov. 18, 2019.
- Yarden Skop, No Sex Segregation on Campus, TAU President Says, Haaretz, Nov. 8, 2016