The Right Combination / Makor Rishon Newspaper
Published on April 17th, 2015, by Ohad Shpak
In response to the petition filed with the Israeli High Court of Justice, the Israeli Council for Higher Education agreed to consider reducing gender segregation in qualification courses for the Haredi public. Will the decision affect the stream of Haredi Jews to academia?
About two weeks ago, Supreme Court justices Elyakim Rubinstein, Meni Mazuz and Einat Baron determined that the Israeli Council for Higher Education (CHE) should be more transparent concerning higher education’s Haredi curriculum to prevent discrimination and avoid violating the principle of equality.
The judges’ decision came following a petition filed by a group of academia researchers, headed by Dr. Yofi Tirosh, leading the long-standing struggle against separation of women in Haredi institutions. The petition was filed against specific academic studies designated for Haredi Jews founded by then CHE chairman Prof. Manuel Trajtenberg, soon to be a Knesset member on behalf of the Zionist Camp. This petition to the High Court of Justice, which amazingly almost did not receive media coverage, threatened to inflict severe harm on thousands of Haredi men and women, who in recent years, thanks to the opening of Haredi campuses, have become integrated in academia in unprecedented numbers.
During the High Court of Justice hearing, the new judge Meni Mazuz said that “the problem, as placed on the table, was a red signpost warning not to get carried away with the process.” However, the Supreme Court justices refrained from dealing with arguments on violation of the principles of equality as set forth in the Basic Law: Human Dignity and Liberty, and limited themselves to a rather general statement that “proper balances are necessary to minimize the questions of equality arising from the separation between men and women, which is apparently unavoidable in many of the programs in question so as to enable Haredi men and women to participate in these programs.”
At the end of the hearing, the petitioners and the CHE concurred with the Court’s proposal that the next proposed multi-year plan to be implemented starting with the 2017 school year, will be presented in advance to the public for review and comments, including the proposal’s data for the first five years of the Haredi academic programs. It was determined that the proposal would include criteria for university and college activity, as well as information on a supervisory program once the plan is implemented. The petitioners emphasized that they would continue to monitor and act to ensure gender equality as part of the new multi-year plan and would turn to the courts if discrimination continued.
How were academic frameworks for Haredi studies established?
In recent years, significant changes have taken place in Haredi society. One of these changes is the Haredi society’s attitude towards acquiring higher education, studying a profession, and going out to work. Haredi men’s holy studies, Haredi women’s low earning capacity, and the need to support large families, has caused the Haredi society in Israel severe economic hardship. This reality has led to a change in the negative and reserved attitude of Haredi society toward the academic world and secular studies.
In view of the growing need for general studies and vocational training, the State of Israel has established special academic frameworks for the Haredi Jews, which were designed to meet the special needs of this population. In 2000, with the encouragement of the CHE, two institutions of higher learning were established for the Haredi public – the Haredi College in Jerusalem, founded by the daughter of Rabbi Ovadia Yosef (the founder and spiritual leader of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Shas party), Adina Bar-Shalom, and the Bnei Brak Academic College. Studies in these institutions take place with complete separation between male and female students, from registration arrangements to study hours and courses. As a result, several non-funded colleges have opened educational frameworks for the Haredi public, and operate as branches of these colleges. The most prominent of these is the Haredi campus of the Ono Academic College, which maintains separate study days for women and men.
Recognizing that higher education is the main source of socio-economic mobility in Israel, the government adopted a resolution emphasizing the national importance of integrating the Haredi population into Israel’s labor market, as part of its integration into the economy and society in general.
In 2010, the CHE Planning and Budgeting Committee (PBC) formulated a plan to promote higher education in Israel for 2010-2016, which included quantitative goals to increase academic studies accessibility for the Haredi Jews. In 2011, the CHE decided to establish “a unique academic framework program for Haredi students (UAP),” limited to only a B.A degree, giving equal opportunity to the Haredi Jews “in view of the knowledge gaps and the cultural barriers”: knowledge gaps among Haredi girls who study only part of core curriculum, and huge gaps among Haredi boys studying only religious studies from the ninth grade onward. The UAP is also intended to bridge cultural barriers found to be more severe among Haredi girls, especially single women, with those who are married, mostly mothers, needing an appropriate educational environment. Therefore, if we understand the CHE, equality of opportunity requires education in separate frameworks “to find the middle ground between separation and integration.”
Following the call for bids published by the CHE, ten UAPs were established in state-budget academic institutions in 2013, such as preparatory courses for men only at the Technion, preparatory courses for men and women at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, and a B.A for men and women separately at Ashkelon Academic College. The UAP’s goal was determined by the CHE’s call “to enable men and women of the Haredi public to acquire an academic profession and earn a decent living while respecting their way of life.” It also stated that “only separated programs would be recommended.”
The Haredi population makes up about 10% of the Israeli population, and about 25% of first graders are Haredi, but as far as higher education is concerned, the Haredi group is currently severely underrepresented in relation to its share in the population – about 3%. Nevertheless, the establishment of Haredi educational institutions and UAPs led to an historic breakthrough. From the founding of the State of Israel in 1948 to the beginning of the 2000s, the Haredi Jews renounced academic studies. In contrast, in 2003, about 1,150 Haredi Jews studied at higher education institutions, and in 2014 the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) announced that the number had increased significantly – to about 8,300 Haredi female and male students. The numbers change from time to time because of the differences of opinion on how to determine who is Haredi, but the trend is clear – compared to the past, the Haredi public is knocking on the doors of academia. In the opinion of Dr. Gilad Malach of the Israel Democracy Institute, the change stems from major compromises by the PBC and CHE with regards to the level of academic standards, conditions of acceptance, and the establishment of separate institutions.
Petition to the High Court of Justice
These compromises led to a petition to the High Court of Justice by a group of senior academic staff against the UAP’s plan, claiming that it causes real harm to opportunity equality in the workplace for female lecturers, and violates gender student equality. In addition, the petitioners argued that the UAP’s plan, budgeting and operation, were carried out with a lack of transparency, and that the public was denied vital information on the program’s objectives, the criteria used in examinations, its scope, and the extent of gender segregation in its operation.
As for disparity in opportunity equality for female lecturers, in most of the UAPs, female lecturers are not allowed to teach male students, while male lecturers are allowed to teach female students. Thus, in the petitioners’ view, an incentive is created to employ and promote male lecturers over female lecturers, since it is more profitable for the institution to employ lecturers who can teach both male and female students. In addition, the existing arrangements harm the ability of female lecturers to tutor postgraduate students and conduct effective research essential to their professional advancement. Moreover, the petitioners raise a concern that female lecturers will not appear at UAP academic conferences to avoid raising problems or questions.
In addition, the petitioners claim that gender segregation severely infringes male and female student equality on the basis of sex. The curricula offered women and men are different, and separation arrangements in educational institutions are very extreme in relation to Haredi society daily life – separate study floors, separate study hours, sometimes even separate gates at the entrance to the campus, and more. The petition raises the suspicion that this extreme separation might spill over into the public arena, and for example, lead to separate sidewalks for men and women or separate shops in Haredi neighborhoods and cities.
Over the years, Israeli court rulings have recognized that the principle of equality is not an absolute principle, but rather a relative one, and must be balanced when it conflicts with another value or the public interest. In addition, equality means “equal treatment,” meaning that, to achieve substantive equality, different individuals must be treated differently. The CHE’s response to the petition argues that the significant knowledge gaps, cultural barriers and the national need to make higher education accessible to the Haredi sector necessitated studies in separate frameworks, – according to them, this is real equality of opportunity, and the results are seen in the field.
However, following the petition, with regards to daily separation arrangements outside classrooms, the CHE decided that “gender segregation would be possible only in the classroom.”
UAP segregation also impairs the nature of higher education, including the inclusion of a variety of opinions, openness to new ideas, and direct encounters between different population groups. The opening of a separate academic framework for the Haredi Jews raises the question of whether in the future additional separate academic frameworks will be opened for each population group that wishes it, thereby creating a significant blow to higher education as a multicultural system advocating integration.
The petitioners emphasized, that in certain cases, certain types of study are set apart a priori, based on gender stereotypes derived from general culture and assumptions about gender conventions dictated by the “Haredi lifestyle.” Thus, for example, at the UAP’s Hadassah College in Jerusalem, only men can study communications and government, and only women can study optometry. In this context, it should be noted that two months ago, a study on the subject by Prof. Sigal Alon of Tel Aviv University was completed with applicants to the Technion and Tel Aviv University. The study found that men prefer to turn to subjects considered “masculine,” such as electrical engineering, mechanical engineering, and computer science, while women apply for admission to departments that already have more female students, such as industrial engineering and management, biotechnology and food engineering.
What about alternative solutions whose infringement of basic rights is not as significant but still achieve the purpose of promoting the Haredi population’s access to education and employment? For these alternatives, separation can only occur during the preparatory year or in the first year of studies, to allow for adjustment and a “soft landing” into the academic curriculum, or separation between men and women only in compulsory courses and not in elective courses. In the CHE’s opinion, these alternatives, if implemented in practice, would thwart the plan and miss the goal, as this would not suffice to grant Haredi students higher education in light of Haredi lifestyle and its conservative demands. In addition, these proposals do not solve the huge knowledge gaps existing between male and female Haredi students, which would not permit their successful integration.
Now, following the Supreme Court’s decision, we must wait for details of the new plan to be published by the CHE for public scrutiny, when representatives of the CHE have already announced that they are considering the possibility of reducing the UAP’s gender segregation during certain years.
Accepting the court’s compromise that the CHE’s new plan must show greater transparency, has led to the dismissal of the petition, but the controversy is far from over.
In conclusion, it is worth remembering the words of retired Supreme Justice Ayala Procaccia in a High Court of Justice hearing dealing with the Tal Law – the Law deferring military service for yeshiva students for whom Torah study is their job: “The solution lies in the recognition that, in the short term, we cannot expect to build a real bridge to cross various value-based approaches polar in nature, and that bridging these concepts is difficult and possibly unattainable. We must strive for practical and pragmatic solutions, in the context of a demand for reciprocal concessions to achieve the goal of equality in the future. The main objective is to reduce the alienation and social exclusion of members of the Haredi society from the rest of the Israeli public and increase their involvement in its social life.”