Despite High Court ruling, gender segregation in Israel only expanding

The police will not prevent segregation in Jerusalem this year – instead, the Chief of Police will even join in

The High Court of Justice (HCJ), no doubt with a stern visage, ruled today (Hebrew) that gender segregation in the streets of the ultra-Orthodox Jerusalem neighbourhood of Mea Shearim is no longer to be tolerated – starting next year. But despite a rather similar decision of the Court last year, which the police does not enforce, the segregation continues unabated. The commander of the Jerusalem Police District, Major General Nisso Shaham, said that images of segregation are “shocking sights”, but his promise – that next year “we’ll see far less harsh images” – is not quite reassuring. One should note that the judges did not order the police to end the segregation, which reaches extraordinary levels during the Sukkot Holiday – right now.

Gender segregation is a relatively new phenomenon in Jewish life: It’s been with us for about a decade, possibly a few years more. Strict ultra-Orthodox, particularly Hassidic Jews, claim the very presence of women (or girls, often very young girls) is disturbing to them, as it fills them with impure thoughts. Segregation takes basically two forms: Public transportation segregation, when the women are obliged to sit at the end of the bus, which was endorsed by the courts (who turned a blind eye to the coercion necessary for it to take place); and the much more recent phenomenon of street segregation, where women are obliged to walk on one part of the street only. This abomination, which the courts declared illegal, has been around for some three years, and is still limited in scope.

I can understand the police, sort of. It is not actually interested in protecting the civil rights of women, or civil rights in general; it is interested in quiet, and emphasizes order much more than law. The last thing it needs is the headache involved in opening a fight with the most combative and least sane faction of the ultra-Orthodox. The police, it should be remembered, opposed a demonstration in Mea Shearim last year – a demonstration protesting precisely this segregation policy.

The prosecution, which said it wants “dialogue,” is less understandable – until you are reminded this is Yaakov Ne’eman’s prosecution. Ne’eman, Liberman’s henchman in the Justice Ministry, was caught saying on record that he wants to enforce the Talmud’s laws in Israel (Hebrew), his prosecutors have already adopted the ultra-Orthodox position on conversion (Hebrew) and he told the HCJ the ultra-Orthodox ought to be protected “from modernity and the threats of enlightenment” (Hebrew).

The judges rejected the nonsense spouted by the prosecution, and noted the deterioration on this front. They actually sounded distressed. Not distressed enough, naturally, to actually order the police to remove the roadblocks by nighttime, arrest the ringleaders and charge them. They said segregation ought not to happen again next year. Next time, Chief Justice Dorit Beinisch won’t be there for the annual gnashing of teeth.

The surrender to the ultra-Orthodox – the segregation, often by force, of bus lines; the violent segregation in Beit Shemesh – is not limited to Jerusalem and its environs. It made it to my hometown, Petah Tikva. MK Zahava Gal-On (Meretz) sent me the following placard, which was published before a feast of the Hassidic Rabbi of Mishkoltz in Petah Tikva. At the bottom of the placard (emphasis added by me), it calls for segregation of women and men in what is still public territory in Petah Tikva. Men are urged to approach the place from the corner of Salant and Herzl streets; women are asked to arrive from the corner of Ehad Ha’am and Hafetz Haim streets.

Placard announcing the presence of Chief Inspector Danino in a segregated event (Picture: MK Zahava Gal'on, used with permission)
Placard announcing the presence of Chief Inspector Danino in a segregated event (Picture: MK Zahava Gal'on, used with permission)

Of particular notes are the guests of honor. The first, somewhat reasonably, is the mayor, Yitzhak Ohayon. The second is… Chief Inspector Yohanan Danino, commander of the Israel Police. As Gal-On noted, “The decision of the HCJ forbidding gender segregation in the public sphere is just a recommendation.”

And an apparently not an important one at that, if the Chief Inspector allows himself to simply ignore it. You know – these are just women. An unimportant minority of 51%.