Culture Clash in Israel: How Far Will Gender Segregation Go?

Since the rise of Israel’s most right-wing government in its history, which included ultra-Orthodox and far-right parties in its alliance, many activists and ordinary Israelis are worrying about the rise of sex segregation in many areas of public life.

In one incident, Inbal Boxerman, an Israeli woman in her 40s, was told by a group of ultra-Orthodox men while boarding a public train operated by Israel Railways in Tel Aviv last month that she was not allowed on that train and that it was only for men. Boxerman was stunned, and she and her friend questioned the ban. But the ultra-Orthodox men insisted that they wait for the next train and sit in the back.

Even though the Israeli Supreme Court ruled that forcing women to sit in separate sections on buses and trains is illegal, many ultra-Orthodox women in religious communities customarily board buses at the rear door and sit in the back. This practice and the incident shared by Boxerman are continuing to spread in Israel.

It also reveals an ongoing culture war that sharply divides the secular majority in Israel and the politically powerful ultra-Orthodox minority who push for a return to traditional gender roles and frown on the mixing of men and women in public spaces.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu made several concessions to ultra-Orthodox and far-right parties as part of his agreement with these groups to form a governing coalition, and these compromises made many secular Israelis anxious.

Some of the policies he agreed on with ultra-Orthodox parties included proposals to segregate audiences by sex at some public events, to create new religious residential communities, to allow businesses to refuse to provide services based on religious beliefs, and to expand the powers of all-male rabbinical courts.

While Israeli laws have not yet been amended to reflect these concessions, many Israelis are already concerned that these changes are coming, often at the expense of women. Israeli news media has been full of reports about incidents deemed discriminatory, such as the case of bus drivers in central Tel Aviv and southern Eliat refusing to pick up women wearing workout clothes or crop tops.

Another incident was when the country’s national emergency medical and disaster service segregated men and women for the first time during the academic part of paramedic training meant to fulfill national service requirements.

Sex segregation has slowly seeped into many areas of public life over the past decades, such as small public colleges that enroll ultra-Orthodox students seeking to segregate students by sex and some drivers’ education and government job training courses running sex-segregated sessions.

The demands of the ultra-Orthodox and far-right parties in Netanyahu’s governing coalition could radically change Israel, which has long guaranteed equal rights for women in its 1948 declaration of independence and reinforced in critical Supreme Court decisions.

What is going on here is not an issue of left and right — they are changing the rules of the game, and it will have a dramatic effect on women,” Moran Zer Katzenstein, head of a pro-democracy group Bonot Alternativa, as well as a non-partisan umbrella group of women’s rights organizations, said regarding the rise of sex-segregation in Israel. “Our rights will be harmed first.

From 60th place last year, Israel dropped to 83rd place in a global gender gap report by the World Economic Forum in June that ranks 146 countries. While the report ranked Israel first in women’s education, the country’s ranking for women’s political empowerment slipped to 96th, just below Pakistan, from 61st last year.

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