A planned, gender-separate Student Day event in Jerusalem for religious and ultra-Orthodox students has generated a fierce controversy in the capital, with secular campaigners denouncing the Jerusalem Municipality for funding gender segregation.
Student associations around the country hold major celebrations on Student Day, which is held every year on Jerusalem Day, which falls this year on June 5, involving live music, dance, food, theatrical productions and similar activities.
With the growing number of ultra-Orthodox students in higher education, along with significant numbers of national-religious students, greater interest has been expressed in recent years by such students for Student Day activities which are more appropriate for their lifestyle.
Following long-term planning spanning several years, several parties in the Jerusalem Municipal Council succeeded in allocating NIS 282,000 for a gender-separate Student Day event to take place in Teddy Park and Hutzot Hayotzer, opposite the Old City. Between 1,500 to 2,000 students are expected to attend.
On Tuesday however, the legal adviser to the Jerusalem Municipality, attorney Haim Nargassi, said that gender segregation at municipality-funded events is illegal, even if requested by a particular community, unless the event involves a prayer service.
Nargassi said that signs or partitions at the religious Student Day celebration could not be used to separate men and women, but added that those attending the event could voluntarily separate into different areas, noting however that “it is forbidden to carry out physical action to enact separation.”
A statement issued by the Jerusalem Municipal Council said that the event would go ahead as planned, explaining that the council was not coercing gender separation, “but students are of course allowed to sit and dance separately and celebrate in accordance with their own preferences.”
Nitai Giron, 24, a member of the Hebrew University Student Union and deputy chairman of the student Meretz Party at the university, led the campaign against the municipal funding.
He said that the allocation of funds to the religious event was based on political considerations, and protested in particular the fact that the municipality gave a similar sum, NIS 300,000, to the main event which attracts more than 20,000 students.
Dr. Laura Wharton, a member of the municipal council for Meretz said that public funding for a gender separate event was “outrageous,” and demeaning to women.
“Unfortunately, religious sensitivities are given more weight than non-religious sensitivities, but it is offensive to me that such segregation can take place, even if some women have been convinced that this is acceptable to them,” she told The Jerusalem Post.
“It’s unacceptable to the majority of the Israeli population as well, and its also illegal,” she said.
Wharton added that her party would likely send observers to the event and said that should any signs, partitions or other means be used to separate men from women, a legal suit would be filed against the municipality for allowing the event to go ahead.
Hanan Rubin, a council member for Hitorerurt, decried the opposition to the event, and said that the alternative Student Day happening was the product of several years work for people who wanted a different type of event.
“These students approached us and said they wanted something new, interesting, different and something that religious students would be comfortable at,” Rubin told the Post.
“No-one is being forced to come, and it is totally legitimate for religious students to request this, so we supported them because we want religious students to feel at home in Jerusalem as any other student.”
Dov Kalmaovitz, a council representative for Bayit Yehudi, described the ruling as “first class chutzpah.”
“This is a strange decision that is motivated only by politics,” he told Channel 2 Online. “There are many [gender] separate events in Jerusalem and no-one mentions it because no-one makes such a noise about it.
“Only for a religious event with separation does the legal adviser all of a sudden get involved,” he said.