Government funding for gender separation in state religious schools evinces consternation

Meretz chairwoman Zahava Galon says the step teaches boys not to disrespect women, but to pretend they don’t exist.

BOYS STUDY Talmud at their school’s synagogue in Bnei Brak 3 (photo credit: REUTERS/Gil Cohen Magen)
BOYS STUDY Talmud at their school’s synagogue in Bnei Brak 3
(photo credit: REUTERS/Gil Cohen Magen)
An Education Ministry decision to fund gender separation in state-run religious elementary schools has generated anger from moderate groups seeking to prevent a trend of increasing stringency within the national-religious school system.
Until now, parents of children at such schools could request that classes be gender- separate, but needed to pay at least some of the cost for such a move.
It is estimated that separating boys and girls in grade six will cost the Education Ministry NIS 10 million for the coming school year.
Proponents of the move say it will prevent more strictly religious parents from leaving the state system and opening independent schools.
However, those opposing the move say it could well lead parents to move their children out of the religious school system altogether.
In coming years, state funding will also be available for gender separation in grades four and five.
At present, and under the new system as well, grades one to three are coed, with an option for separation if two-thirds of parents request it.
Grades four to six are separate unless two-thirds of parents request that they be mixed.
It is the more religiously conservative stream of the national-religious community, known as the hardal (haredi-national-religious) sector, that is advancing increasing gender separation for elementary schools.
The Education Ministry said in response that it was simply creating a more organized framework for a phenomenon that was already widespread.
According to ministry statistics, there are 200 state-religious elementary schools with complete gender separation, and 50 with partial separation.
Another 150 are coed.
Ne’emanei Torah Va’avoda, a mainstream national-religious organization that has been fighting gender-separation for several years, heavily criticized the decision, saying it would not prevent the establishment of independent religious schools.
“In the majority of cases that we deal with, the establishment of an independent school happens after the local state-religious school has been gender-separated,” the organization said in a statement to the press.
Parents who transfer children to more religious schools do so not because of mixed classes, but due to the type of pupils their children are mixing with, NTA director Shmuel Shetah argued.
He noted that just 10 years ago, the majority of state-run religious schools were coed.
The organization also said that funding gender-separate schools in this way was discriminatory against non-separated schools, since separate classes have fewer students and therefore require more teachers.
NTA said further that the funding imbalance would create an incentive for parents to choose gender separation over mixed classes.
“The funding is not fair, and not only will it not halt the trend of radicalization and segregation, it will strengthen it even further,” said the group. “The desire to compromise with the haredi national- religious [sector], which is a minority, will lead a much larger community to flee the [state] religious education framework, and [lead to a] flow of pupils to secular education.”
However, the Education Ministry rejected these claims, saying that the new framework was “making an already existing reality more orderly.”
It also argued that contrary to the criticism, funding gender separation would prevent the flow of students to private schools and the establishment of new ones.
The ministry claimed that the move would prevent increasing radicalization, since although classes would be separate, recess time, ceremonies and events would still be coed, and there would be no separation in grades one through three.
In addition, it noted that its new steps would formalize what was currently a haphazard situation and would also ease the burden of payments on parents interested in such a system.
Meretz chairwoman Zehava Gal-On, meanwhile, condemned the state support for gender separation in the strongest terms.
“In a new development from the workshop of new politics and liberalism of Yesh Atid, all citizens of Israel will now pay out of their pockets toward the exclusion of nine-year-old girls; for education [toward] the values of fear of women and their exclusion from all environs in which men or boys are to be found; and [toward] the creeping religious radicalization of the education system and Israeli society,” she said.
“There is no reason we should pay for this decision to teach religious boys that instead of respecting women, it is preferable to simply ignore their existence,” she said.