Terra Incognita: Haredi higher education

The same secular public demanding integration of the haredi community into workforce also demands any attempt to educate them be suppressed.

June 25, 2013 21:45
Ultra-orthodox yeshiva students [illustrative]

Haredi ultra-orthodox yeshiva students 311. (photo credit: REUTERS/Baz Ratner)

Last week the Hebrew University of Jerusalem’s senate held a meeting to examine whether to support the Jerusalem Haredi College. It was convened against the backdrop of a petition signed by over 300 Hebrew University faculty members against a relationship with the college (currently the two have no formal relationship).

The controversy stems from the fact that Haredi College has classes separated by gender.

The issue highlights a hypocrisy of Israeli society – the same secular public demanding integration of the haredi community into the workforce also demands that any attempt to educate haredim be suppressed because haredim are not in line with mainstream liberal values.

The Jerusalem Haredi College was founded in 2001 by Rebbetzin Adina Bar-Shalom, the daughter of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, and today has over 1,200 students. According to the college’s website, it is a “dedicated Orthodox study campus, the first of its kind that provides the overall framework for high academic standards and addresses the unique needs of male and female religious Orthodox students, both financially and personally.”

The website states the college’s vision as follows: “Haredi College strives to continue to promote the ideal of ultra-Orthodox education and integration into the labor market and society while developing independent learning classes, which will enable the design of ultra-Orthodox society as a creative and effective [one], integrated socially and financially.”

As Israel struggles with the need to integrate haredim into the workforce, this college seems ideally suited to provide the necessary education. Currently it offers BAs in social work, psychology, counseling, medical technology, communications, music therapy and conflict resolution.

Because the Orthodox are raised in a school system that separates men and women, the notion of having separated studies at university matches the lifestyle they are accustomed to, and many would find it uncomfortable to study in a mixed classroom, as odd as this might sound to secular people long used to men and women mixing everywhere.

The outrage among Hebrew University faculty is evident in Yarden Skop’s Haaretz article on the subject: “When I hear of gender segregation on a bus or in the street, I am outraged as a citizen. I don’t want this kind of thing to take place in my academic home,” said one professor. Other comments related to the “disaster” that gender segregation would spell for the university and to the idea that said segregation was “within university walls.”

Deputy rector Orna Kupferman argued that “the norms of gender segregation and female exclusion are expanding...

they are contrary to every principle the university stands for... women are [seen as] inferior and that’s that.”

Kupferman also claimed that any segregation was contrary to the university’s constitution, which mandates that education must be “open to all, regardless of... gender.”

This is in line with Israel’s Council for Higher Education, which has forbidden institutions to enforce gender segregation. (Not every academic agrees with the petition however; one respected feminist professor told me she thought that the outrage was misplaced and that haredi women could benefit from the plan.) However, these criticisms strangely all seem to ignore the very program being proposed. According to reports, the Hebrew University was merely considering partnering with an existing college’s academic program, so that the college students could receive degrees with the imprimatur of the Hebrew University. Haifa and Tel Aviv universities already have such partnerships.

The academics outraged at the gender separation supposedly taking place at Hebrew University, or “inside the walls,” seemed to be casting this as one more battle in the war against the exclusion of women. But this ignores the fact that the plan never called for gender separation on Hebrew University campuses. Moreover, the assumption that the separation entailed “exclusion” of women, or stemmed from a notion that they are inferior, is contradicted by the fact that the Jerusalem Haredi College is run by a woman, and has as its goals providing equal education for women and men and advancing women in society by providing religious women the tools to compete for jobs and receive higher pay.

Education is one of the highest determinants of income in Israeli society, as revealed by a Taub Center study that showed those with a BA receiving an average of NIS 14,000 a month at age 45, versus those with only a high school diploma earning NIS 8,000. Thus the long-term benefits for women studying today at places like Jerusalem Haredi College will accrue in two decades, bringing them economic security and aiding their integration.

Yet inexplicably, just as the state and populist politicians like Yair Lapid are cutting benefits to haredi families and ordering them to integrate, the secular intelligentsia is waging a jihad against any attempt to find compromises that would allow the Orthodox to achieve this while at the same time respecting their unique lifestyle.

THE DEBATE over the the pros and cons of separate education for women is not unique to Israel. Rebecca Bigler, a professor of psychology and women’s studies, and Lise Elliot, a professor of neuroscience, argued in a 2012 Washington Post piece that “rigorous educational research has found that, contrary to popular belief, single-sex education does not produce better achievement outcomes compared to coeducation.”

A 2012 article by Caryl Rivers and Rosalind Barnett noted that the major issue was not separate education but stereotyping at an early age. “To disarm stereotypes,” they wrote, “we must actively arm girls against them – starting at a very young age. By first or second grade, both girls and boys have the notion that math is a ‘boy thing.’” Psychologist Anthony Greenwald found that combatting stereotypes among pre-teens was the most important factor.

The failure to address the needs of women in education has played out at universities, too. For example, in the US only 18 percent of degrees in computer science went to women last year. To confront this problem a variety of programs have been initiated. For instance Wake Tech. Community College in North Carolina runs a special program for women in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) in which three classes are offered for women only and women are part of a special community learning program.

The University of Texas offers a week-long summer camp for high-school girls to get them interested in computer science and pays for 20 women to attend the Grace Hopper Celebration in Computing each year.

Harvey Mudd College also has a special program designed to encourage women to study electronics.

The European Molecular Biology Organization opened its first women-only courses this year.

Educators are realizing the need to provide opportunities and courses specially geared toward women, and that the real discrimination begins at an early age, not just in college. Gender separation has also been seen as a way to help conservative women from other cultures enter the workforce.

Rashida Manjoo, the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women, argues that by not providing gender-segregated classrooms for Beduin girls, the state in effect locks these women out of educational opportunities due to their conservative Muslim society which eschews mixing genders. Thus, Manjoo states that Israel’s “policy of imposing mixed-gender schools that fail to account for cultural restrictions discriminate against Beduin girls by effectively depriving them of their right to education.”

This turns on its head the idea that any form of gender separation in the classroom necessarily discriminates against women or implies inferiority. In fact, according to the UN expert, it is not separating women that can sometimes deprive them of their right to an education. This seems a perplexing contradiction, but only because many in the West have become used to the supposition that “segregation” means “discrimination.”

Words matter – highly charged ones more so. Jerusalem Haredi College, run by Adina Bar Shalom, was intended to help integrate women into the workforce and raise their standard of living. Those who oppose such institutions are in many cases actually infringing on the rights of these women and depriving them of opportunities.

Haredim should not merely be integrated into the workforce at the lowest income levels, they should be integrated throughout.

Either way, the Hebrew University risks losing an opportunity to empower a segment of Israeli society that is deeply in need of higher education.

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