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Academic circles in Israel are raging. Knesset Members Ya’acov Margi (United Torah Judaism) and Shuli Moalem-Refaeli (Bayit Yehudi) are leading a legislative effort to recognize the right of students to study in Israel’s colleges and universities in gender-separated classes. As expected, the mainstream Israeli secular media is providing those circles with the platform they require to purvey their anti-religious beliefs.
The onslaught started with an op-ed piece on the Ynet site by Prof. Orna Kupferman. Entitled “We shall pay a heavy price for separating women in academia,” it suggested that “the ultra-Orthodox pushed for the corrective legislation, claiming it would increase the participation of the ultra-Orthodox in the workforce. This is how they are preparing the way for segregation also in the work place.”
Kupferman was quite forthright in expressing her opinion, her summation being “separation, especially gender separation, is alien to academia, goes against its essence, destroying the values of equality which are the heart of academia and have been achieved only after many years of struggle.”
But is all this true? Is academia endangered by the haredi population? Or is it that the poor souls who consider themselves as the sole representatives of academia and who preach equality are frightened by the picture of haredim appearing on their campuses?
It does not come as a surprise that Ha’aretz supports Kupferman and her colleagues. The next day, the paper published an op-ed column by Dr. Netta Barak-Corren, who claimed that including haredim within academia is not a zero-sum game. What she meant was that society does not have to pay the price for segregated classes to have haredim study in the colleges. Barak-Corren published last month a study which purported to prove that it is not a necessary condition to segregate classes. Her “scientific conclusion” was based on an Internet questionnaire of former haredi students, most of whom claimed that segregation was not necessary.
In this context, it is of journalistic interest to note that Barak-Corren is a friend of Dr. Yofi Tirosh, the person who petitioned the Supreme Court to annul the council of higher education programs for the haredi community due to their segregation between men and women and thus, violation of the principle of gender equality. At Columbia Law School on October 1, Tirosh gave a lecture titled “Move aside and cover yourself: Between gender equality and religious accommodation in Israel.”
Israel’s Academy of Sciences and Humanities decided that it could not remain uninvolved. On December 2, it announced that its “council and former presidents take a forceful stand against the position of the Council for Higher Education, which allows having separate studies for men and women on the academic campuses.” They, too, repeat the mantra that this type of segregation undermines the principles underlying Israeli academia.
Although the signatories to this proclamation are impressive, nevertheless it is based on false information and false accusations. The Academy of Sciences and Humanities did not take even the most elementary step of inviting proponents of allowing segregation for haredi students to its council and ask them to explain or convince them of their position. Our media is also not doing its professional job. Such broadsides by the opponents of limited and voluntary gender separation are not being adequately challenged by the media.
Let us consider the claim of the chiseling away at academic freedom. In the past, our media has proudly reported the successes of our universities in creating a foothold in China. In 2015, the Technion launched the Guangdong Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, located in Shantou, Guangdong Province. More recently, Haifa University proudly announced that it is “founding a research center in Shanghai – the first of its kind for Israeli and Chinese academia.” The communique went further and announced that “the joint fields of research already agreed upon include neuroscience, mathematics education technology, computing and data management, and environmental management.”
We all know that China is not a Western democracy. Academic freedom in China is limited. If so, how can our national Academy of Sciences and Humanities condone our participation in Chinese academia? Does it not occur to the media, who are never really shy about “talking truth to power,” to ask our universities, proud of their achievements in China and other less-than-democratic countries, why they tolerate one discriminatory reality but are aggressive when it comes to the possibility of advancing the academization of the haredi sector here? Is the media is deliberately missing a good story of hypocritical academics?
Let us not give the wrong impression. Israel’s participation in China is very important to Israel. Academic relations flourish. One of us (EP) was the initiator of formal ties between the Israel Science Foundation and the National Natural Science Foundation of China, and was publicly lauded for this by Prof. Joshua Jortner, who signed that anti-haredi proclamation. It is none of our business to involve ourselves in the internal politics of China. A fundamental of academia is that science has no borders. The involvement of Israeli universities in China is a wonderful development and speaks well for us and the Chinese. But it appears that certain ideological interests bother our academics more than others.
Our media treat the academic community with kid gloves. The Academy of Sciences and the Humanities is supported financially by the Israeli government. What are they doing with this funding? Are they really implementing their mandate to advise the government on scientific issues, or are they a mere senior club of people who support each other? Does Israel need this body at all? The members of the Academy elect themselves. Is this proper for an institution funded by the public?
None of these questions are raised by our media, whose job it is to be critical. On the issue of gender separation, all that MKs Margi and Moalem wanted to do is to assure equal rights to the whole population, especially in view of the principle of freedom of religion. A student who feels the need to learn in gender-segregated classes due to religious beliefs should have the ability to do so. Isn’t freedom of religion also a principle of the free thought which underlies academic freedom?
Does this prevent anyone from studying in mixed classes? Certainly not. Is such segregation anti-academic? Not in the United States which has well more than 30 women’s colleges and three men’s colleges. Such “anti-academic” practice may even be found in the historic heart of academia – Cambridge University in the UK. It boasts three women-only colleges – Lucy Cavendish, Murray Edwards and Newnham colleges. Lucy Cavendish is of especial interest since it is named in honor of Lucy Cavendish, who campaigned for the reform of women’s education, yet it accepts only female students and fellows. Are our learned professors at the Academy of Sciences aware of this?
The media’s job is to thoroughly investigate and present the various aspects and dilemmas involved. Perhaps with a more critical media the Academy would not have harmed its good name by taking a politically motivated position rather than a well-researched one.The authors are members of Israel’s Media Watch (www.imediaw.org.il). One of us (EP) is a member of the Council for Higher Education.
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