Israel’s national parks and nature reserves could soon see new gender-segregated bathing hours, following a proposed bill from United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni on Tuesday morning.
According to a report in Israel Hayom, Gafni, along with party members Uri Maklev and Yakov Asher, has presented a bill to regulate separate swimming and bathing hours across Israel’s nature reserves, a move which would see at least 15% of operational hours become segregated, meaning men and women will not be able to enter the areas together.
"Segregation at the Nature and Parks Authority means that sons who cannot travel with their mothers and daughters who cannot spend time with their fathers. This is not Judaism. This is the men's way of forcing us back."Hadas Danieli Yelin, CEO of Israel Womens Network
In the explanatory notes accompanying the proposed law, it is stated that at least 20% of Israel’s population observe religious laws that prevent them from bathing in all-gender areas. As a result, around one-fifth of the population is unable to fully experience Israel’s nature reserves, in what the notes call a discriminatory practice.
Furthermore, the fact that the reserves are overseen by the government only furthers the discrimination, the proposed bill states, as this means that the government is essentially preventing religious people from visiting these sites.
In response to the news of the proposed bill, the Israel Nature and Parks Authority told The Jerusalem Post that “the nature authority, by virtue of its state role, is responsible for the management and operation of nature reserves and national parks, and within this framework works as much as possible to make these sites accessible to all populations while preserving the values of nature, heritage and landscape.”
The authority added that it will study the bill if it is passed and then act accordingly.
Previous attempts to implement segregation
In 2020, the Parks Authority tested out a similar plan to segregate swimming by gender, rolling out the project at the Einot Tzukim Nature Reserve in the northern part of the Dead Sea. However, that project was short-lived due to the Justice Ministry’s opposition to the plan.
At the time, then-deputy attorney-general Dina Zilber gave a legal opinion on the matter in which she stated that “a government agency may not provide gender-segregated services. This view is based on the High Court’s ruling that ‘separate but equal is inherently unequal.’”
'God created nature without partitions'
POLITICIANS FROM the opposition were quick to respond to news of the proposed bill, with Labor Party leader MK Merav Michaeli – the only female party leader in Knesset – taking to Twitter to address Gafni, saying that “as much as I am happy to dance at your [gender] separated private event, I will fight just as much to ensure that you do not turn our entire country into your private event.”
The proposed bill is “another step in the halachic [Jewish legal] revolution that Netanyahu’s crazy friends are promoting under his protection,” she charged, adding that “he [Netanyahu] doesn’t care, which is what happens when you have a private pool at home.”
Michaeli’s mention of dancing at a private event was in reference to her attendance at the wedding of Gafni’s granddaughter back in July 2022. Her presence caused a stir among Israel’s religious and secular citizens alike, as the secular Labor leader and the haredi(ultra-Orthodox) UTJ MK seem to be ardently opposed to one another ideologically.
However, at the time, Michaeli simply stated that “the biggest mitzvah [commandment] is to rejoice a bride at her wedding.”
"It is not about religious exclusion or coercion, God forbid, but about a solution that is suitable to each and every person according to their faith and lifestyle."Shai Glick, Btsalmo CEO
Also coming out against the proposed segregation bill was Yesh Atid MK and former social equality minister Merav Cohen, who called it “another step that will only antagonize people against the ultra-Orthodox.
“Instead of bringing hearts together in such a divided time – they offer more partitions, more separation and more discrimination. God created nature without partitions. The public space belongs to everyone – and will remain that way.”
Jerusalem City Council member Yovav Tzur of the Hitorerut Party expressed his concern about the proposed law to the Post, saying he is worried that it may harm the nature reserves themselves.
“MK Gafni’s attempt to separate men and women will harm hundreds of thousands of families who go out into nature together, and it will be another step in harming nature sites,” he said.
“The Nature and Parks Authority sites are public sites, and we must not allow a minority group to dictate to everyone else how to conduct themselves in a public space.”
"A wake-up call for us all"
CEO of the Israel Women’s Network Hadas Daniely Yelin said in a response put out by the movement that the proposed gender-segregation bill should be a “wake-up call for all of us.”
“These are not outbursts of anger; these are plans that are being realized before our eyes. Our rights as women are in danger. Gender segregation has one goal: to eliminate women from the public sphere.”
Yelin added that “segregation at the Nature and Parks Authority means that [there will be] sons who cannot travel with their mothers and daughters who cannot spend time with their fathers. This is not Judaism. This is the men’s way of forcing us back.
“We will continue to fight for our place. We cannot be made to disappear from the public eye.”
However, not everyone is opposed to the plan put forward by the UTJ MKs.
Right-wing Jewish human rights group Btsalmo (in His image), whose mission statement says that they “work to protect the rights of all people in the State of Israel,” spoke out in support of the proposed bill.
Speaking to Israel Hayom, CEO Shai Glick said that “in the State of Israel, there is a large religious and haredi population, as well as a Muslim population who do not bathe in mixed spaces. This public also has a right to enjoy natural resources.
“It is not about religious exclusion or coercion, God forbid, but about a solution that is suitable to each and every person according to their faith and lifestyle.”
Likud vows to protect the status quo
In response to Gafni's bill, senior Likud officials vowed to maintain the status quo on all religion and state matters, including at Nature and Parks Authority reserves, Walla reported.
Jerusalem Post Staff contributed to this report.