No gender apartheid in Israeli universities

Sexism is racism towards women.

April 29, 2019 23:52
4 minute read.
STUDENTS AT Hebrew University in Jerusalem

STUDENTS AT Hebrew University in Jerusalem. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)

There is growing pressure to institute gender-separation in Israeli universities as a means to entice haredi attendance. Any version of such a policy would be a terrible mistake that cannot be allowed to happen.

There is no such thing as “separate but equal.” This reality has been demonstrated conclusively time and again in multiple contexts. “Separate” always privileges the group making the separation. The US Supreme Court ruled this decades ago about “separate but supposedly equal” public school systems in the US, which in fact, discriminated egregiously against non-whites. “Separate but equal” is a ruse under which discrimination is practiced.

There is no way to acquiesce to sexist haredi demands, which are ever-escalating, and never satisfied – no matter what concession is given – without discriminating against women.

First, the haredi demand for male-privileged separation is premised on the sexual objectification of women, which denies women’s full humanity. We would not approve a university policy that does this to any other group, and it is categorically unacceptable that it be done to women.

Some have drawn the analogy between haredi demands and “salami tactics,” in which, in this case, the proponent starts with an ostensibly thin slice, like, “just” men-only classes. But this demand leads necessarily to firing women as faculty, or not appointing them in the first place, and to limiting the resources, options and opportunity available to female students.

It also means censoring material and subjects that might offend haredim, like evolution; history; or certain philosophical or social scientific schools of thought – such as the social construction and psychology of gender. In the hard sciences, when most professors have but one lab, do we honestly think that the number of labs will be multiplied in order to provide haredim with the woman-less kind they demand – with what budget, when the universities are struggling to stay above water as it is?

Or will the result, rather, be the banning of women from research appointments, as students and as faculty? Will departments also be expected to prevent the cooperation and collaboration among graduate students that is vital to learning and the advancement of research in order to meet sexist haredi demands that not only fail to advance knowledge, but impede it? And if they don’t so accede, as pure budgetary considerations might dictate, what then of haredi education, when haredi students would have been coddled to expect reality to bend to their demands?

And what happens when such haredim go out into the working world – the ostensible goal of all this machination – and find that the world contains professional women, as peers and as superiors? Shall the discrimination just keep radiating up and out, defining the world we all live in? Creating a gender-and-sex-obsessed prison, patriarchy for all? Will haredim have been given an education, or will all of society have been refashioned in haredi image?

There is no doing any version of gender-separation in the universities and not compromising the whole purpose of the university fundamentally and fatally. This is the road to Iran, to Saudi Arabia.

THE UNIVERSITIES must not accede to this or any similar demand. We would never discuss a proposal to limit classes to non-Jews; we would call any such proposal Jew-hating and dismiss it as categorically unacceptable. When we hear of laws in the not-so-distant past, which barred Jews from universities, we call this racist.

Sexism is racism towards women.

My rule of thumb about all such claims – such as: men can’t sit next to a woman on a plane or bus; can’t see a woman’s face in an ad; can’t hear a woman’s voice on the radio, at a national event or a professional conference; can’t let women use the same side walk or building entrance as men; can’t see or hear women at prayer in Jewish sacred space – is: substitute “Jew” for “woman.”

Can’t say it about “Jews?”

Then you can’t say it about women.


The serious and growing problem that haredi functional illiteracy and poverty pose to Israeli society has to be handled by state policy, through cutting the subsidies to the yeshiva empire, which Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu did back when he was Finance Minister and enforced economically sound, evidence-driven policies; which subsidies, however, he has restored. It is this flawed policy that leaves millions, a growing percentage of the population, illiterate and in poverty, without basic work or life skills.

The pressure has to be on Netanyahu and his government to end a recklessly irresponsible and destructive social policy. It is not for the university to agree to its own destruction as a bastion of open, scientific inquiry and behavior, and let him off the hook for this.

Women will not be made the sacrificial victims in a misguided program, ostensibly established to give haredi men a basic education, but which instead continues to shield them from reality, both scientific and social; while an unrestrained yeshiva empire continues to make them illiterate and the roshei yeshiva rich, politically powerful and untouchable; while this system continues to turn out masses of voters who vote as they are told and who keep the whole system going – a system we pay for, even as it strangles us and threatens to bring gender-apartheid down on us.

The answer to the question here is, and must be: No. No to the first salami slice.

There can be no compromise on this. This is a mistake the university cannot make even once.

Shulamit S. Magnus is an award-winning Jewish historian and Professor Emerita of Jewish Studies and History at Oberlin College.

Related Content

August 22, 2019
Back to school: What we teach our children


Cookie Settings