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How Israeli Colleges Are Discriminating Against Ultra-Orthodox Women

The segregation of ultra-Orthodox men from women during higher education degree programs is against Israeli law, as well as a violation of educational ethics, claims a group of Israeli professors in a new appeal to Israel’s High Court.

Sixteen academics from across Israeli institutions have launched a campaign to close gender segregated college- and university-level programs for ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) populations, and to prevent the trend of women’s exclusion from spreading to other institutions around Israel.

“The policy of segregation goes against the foundational principles of academia,” says Hebrew University computer science Professor Orna Kupferman, who until recently was the Vice Provost of the university and responsible for overseeing the integration of Haredi women and men into the university. “The academic community must protest with full force against the spread of segregation into its midst. This is a segregation that is asymmetrical, hierarchical and discriminatory. There is no empowerment here. Women are inferior, period.”

The professors submitted their High Court appeal in August in order to prevent the Council of Higher Education (CHE or “Malag”) from renewing a five-year pilot program that began in 2012 in which colleges and universities received special budgets to open gender-segregated degree platforms exclusively for Haredi students. Over the years, many educators, academics and policy-makers opposed this plan, and the High Court ordered CHE to conduct evaluations and public hearings on the issue.

Despite some troubling findings from the subsequent research, the Policy and Planning Committee of CHE approved a 500 million NIS ($135 million) allocation for this renewal in May of this year, and has requested another billion-shekel allocation ($270 million) budget for Haredi learning platforms. Over 700 other academics have signed a supporting petition for the High Court appeal to stop this plan. The appeal is currently under review and the court is expected to rule in the coming months.

There is arguably no need for Haredi-only colleges; Haredi women and men have always been able to freely receive college degrees from accredited universities – as religious Jews do all around the world. But Haredi leaders in Israel strongly discourage their community members from interactions with non-Haredi people for fear of secular influence. As Haredi Knesset member Moshe Gafni declared,“ a Haredi man should not be learning in universities at all. He will get ruined there.”

In the Haredi world, moreover, failure to comply with expected communal behaviors can result in stalled marriage prospects, public shaming, and even excommunication.

Still, many Haredi men and women have studied at the Open University, an institution founded in 1974 that allows flexible distance learning – and hence minimal exposure to the non-Haredi world.

In 2000, under pressure from Haredi legislators and economists troubled by rampant poverty and welfare-dependence in the Haredi community, the State of Israel created a new model for pushing Haredi students into higher education and thus eventually into the Israeli workforce. The first two state-funded college-level platforms exclusively for the Haredi population were established, one in Bnei Brak called Mivchar certified by Haifa University, and The Haredi College in Jerusalem founded by Adina Bar-Shalom. The latter is now being closed due to budgetary deficits and a drop in enrollment. A third, donor-funded program was established in the Kiryat Ono college.

In 2011, the trend of Haredi-only gender-segregated college degree platforms took a major leap forward when CHE put out a call for proposals for five-year pilot programs specifically designed for Haredi-only students.

Since then, segregated Haredi programs have opened up in almost every major institution of higher learning in Israel – although often not on the actual university campuses and without using the names of the universities, because Haredi leaders shun association with secular institutions, resulting in many specially-built brand-new campuses for Haredi populations built with taxpayer funds via the Ministry of Education. Overall, 16 colleges and three universities have opened Haredi platforms, mostly around Jerusalem and Tel Aviv. An estimated 11,000 Haredi students were enrolled in degree programs during the last academic year – as opposed to 6,000 Haredim who were enrolled in degree programs before the pilot.

Although the call did not say that the platforms must be gender-segregated, in practice, they all are, in order to appeal to even the most religious students. The result is a slew of gender-segregated campuses that often entail double the libraries, double the cafeterias and double the real estate. The women’s campuses, the petitioners say, are the ones that suffer. In many instances, the libraries are smaller, the course selection is narrower, the programs are half the size, and women – as opposed to men – are not given stipends.

In addition, the courses push students into gendered tracks of study. Men, for the most part, study business, law, science and computers, while women primarily study social work, teaching, nursing, and occupational therapy. According to a 2016 external evaluation of the pilot program, there wasn’t a single woman studying mechanical or electrical engineering, and not a single man studying occupational therapy. All this, despite the fact that elsewhere, CHE has given lip service to advancing women in Israeli academia where they are sorely underrepresented.

Indeed, one of the most striking issues in the Haredi platforms, according to the petitioners, is the overt, and patently illegal labor discrimination against women. While men can work and teach freely in the women’s programs – and the evaluation report notes that the entire acceptance process in women’s programs is often led by men – women cannot set foot anywhere near the men’s programs.

“The very existence of gender-segregated learning molds students with a flawed education,” Professor Kupferman said in a speech to the Hebrew University Senate during deliberations over whether they should open a Haredi platform. “A male student who is not exposed to the opinions of a female student during his classroom discussions by definition is receiving an inferior education,” she argued. The Senate agreed with her and did not open a Haredi platform.

Many Haredi women – and men – also agree.

Estee Rieder-Indursky, a Haredi scholar and co-director of the organization Nivcharot that promotes Haredi women in politics, said at a recent conference at Tel Aviv University that Haredi women are troubled by the discrimination that they face and share with their secular counterparts “the fear that gender segregation will turn into the norm in Israeli society. Because if Haredi men can erase women in academic settings, why stop there? If they can erase women in order to integrate themselves into society, they will continue to do it.”

Rieder-Indursky also argues that there is a strong connection between the Knesset’s willingness to embrace Haredi parties that exclude women – such as coalition partners Shas and United Torah Judaism – and the spread of gender segregation in academia. “It is a slippery slope. The same logic that excludes women professors will also exclude women judges and women doctors – and not only Haredi women but all women.” The petitioners argue that not only are gender-segregated Haredi-exclusive platforms unethical and potentially illegal; they are also apparently ineffective. According to the 2016 independent evaluation report, the pace of Haredi enrollment in degree programs actually slowed during the pilot program instead of accelerating, the programs have a drop-out rate of over 50%, and graduates have had paltry success at landing jobs.

Moreover, there are some major questions about the level of study at these institutions. According to a 2015 external evaluation of Haredi law degree programs the Haredi programs are on a much lower level than their regular counterparts. Haredi students have fewer course requirements, shorter semesters, and lower standards of attendance. There are few if any small classes and study groups, many courses are taught by teaching assistants without doctorates or qualifications, lecturers have ridiculously large loads – some expected to supervise 150 students a semester in writing seminar papers – which make it impossible to have real interactions and relationships with students. Lecturers do not have offices on campus and do not hold office hours.

The researchers argue that graduates cannot find jobs because the programs do not assist in landing internships, crucial for entering the workforce, and because there is no integrating with other populations, which eliminates networking. And the programs, with their limited options for study, have created a glut of workers in certain areas. Because law was one of the first and most popular areas of study, there are now, ironically, too many Haredi lawyers on the market. In fact, since the program started in 2012, the proportion of Haredi men in the labor market has dropped, not increased.

The picture gets worse.

Haredi colleges work hard to control students’ behavior, making them sign a contract that they will not deviate from a Haredi lifestyle in appearance or actions. Moreover, materials are often censored, so the students are not allowed to talk about issues like homosexuality or suicide – even students of social work. They are also not allowed to use the internet. Two female students were recently caught by the head of their college using the library internet to find sources for research. They were summarily reprimanded and removed from the library. Even students of computer science are not allowed to use the Internet.

“The essence of academic training which involves critical thinking and fact-based learning can only be done in a free, pluralistic environment,” wrote Professor Chagit Meser Yaron of Tel Aviv University in a position paper to CHE.

The root of the problem, though, according to Professor Kupferman, starts much earlier. Haredi students, who graduate from elementary and high schools that are exempt from core educational requirements, enter the college degree platforms with limited knowledge of math, English, literacy, writing, and basic study stills.

“An 18-year-old Haredi student barely knows third-grade multiplication. But instead of teaching them in school, the CHE is looking to the higher education system to save them,” she says. “This is criminal negligence of an entire population, and a distorted plan for fixing the problem. Instead of actually giving them a proper education, the CHE is trying to hand out degrees.”

All of these problems have not stopped the CHE for continuing and even expanding the program with a budget double the size. Professor Yaffa Zilbershats, the Chair of the Committee of Budgets and Planning of the CHE (“Vatat”) that is responsible for distributing funds for the Haredi platforms, defended the CHE position recently on the Israeli television talk show London and Kirschenbaum.

“We have to understand what it means to be Haredi,” Professor Zilbershats said. “They are scared of losing their identities. They are worried that if they go into higher education, they will not be Haredi when they finish. You have to treat this with a measure of forgiveness… We want to enable everyone to learn.” She also says that the process of creating these programs was done in a way that tries to minimize the damage to principles of equality.

“You have to see the impact these programs have on real people,” she said. “The Bezalel School of Design now has a program for Haredi women…You should see the impact on the students. We have to do whatever it takes to make this happen.”

Zilbershats herself is a religious Zionist, closely affiliated with Education Minister Naftali Bennet’s Religious Home party, and a long-time member of the faculty of the religious Zionist Bar Ilan University.

Bennet, who also sits on CHE, is the staunchest supporter of gender-segregated Haredi platforms. “You have to decide,” Bennet wrote in his characteristic unyielding style. “Do you want Haredi men in academia and labor or not.” If you do, he continued, “we have to create special programs for them. It is critical for our future.”

Many of Bennet’s peers in the Knesset – from across the political spectrum – disagree with him, including MKs Anat Barko (Likud), Rachel Azaria (Kulanu), and Merav Michaeli (Labor).

“What about the women lecturers?” MK Azaria asked in a heated twitter exchange with Bennet. “How are you planning on taking them into account? Where is the plan for them?”

“The appeal is short-sighted,” Bennet tweeted in reply. “The lecturers want to stop Haredim from getting a higher education. It’s easy to complain about Haredim. We chose to act.”

The petitioners insist that they, too, are staunchly in favor of Haredi integration in higher learning and the workforce, but they object to the notion of doing it at any cost. “We want everything to be open to Haredi students,” said Professor Joel, “not just the limited programs that somebody decided is right for women or right for men. Higher education cannot be dictated by rabbis.”

“This segregation is just another step in the Bennet-Netanyahu government’s drive for religious takeover of public spaces,” MK Michaeli wrote. “Segregated buses, women’s singing, women’s participation in funerals,” are all taking place in Israel, in some cases despite High Court opposition. “The big lie is that gender segregation in academia will be temporary. The reality is they will then demand segregated workplaces, segregated cafeterias.”

The creation of women-free spaces has a dangerous potential for being legitimized and spreading, especially in a country that is currently struggling with Haredi demands for the exclusion of women in public halls, in municipal events, in public spaces like libraries, medical clinics and cemeteries, on streets and buses, and even in formal government events.

“Over the past few months, religious students at Hebrew University demanded a partition at graduation, Bar Ilan cancelled singing at the Memorial Day ceremony to avoid women singing,” Professor Liniel and his colleagues wrote. Women’s participation has been canceled in the Knesset, in the army, and even in state ceremonies. If the university system continues to allow gender segregation, the fear is that there will be no stopping the spread of segregated spaces all over the country.

Despite the fierce opposition coming from Israeli academia – the program has fierce defenders, especially from among graduates. One Haredi woman named Tzviya Zicherman, a graduate of a women’s law program who is also on the board of Shacharit, an organization promoting understanding between Haredi and non-Haredi populations in Israel, wrote a gushing Facebook post about her experience.

“Ten years ago, if someone would have told my 19-year-old self that today I would be working as a lawyer, I would have thought they were delusional. Back then my wildest dream was to be a secretary.” She calls the Haredi platforms a “revolution” and adds that despite the criticism of the Haredi platforms – which she admits deserves to be weighed heavily – “let’s just remember that in the past 15 years, 10,000 Haredi men and women got degrees and are working as lawyers and accountants. That is 10,000 people who would not have been in this position had it not been for the segregated Haredi programs.”

The petitioners insist that they are fully in favor of the integration of Haredi men and women into the labor force, but they say that this has to be done differently.

Hebrew University, for example, under Professor Kupferman’s vision, has been running a pre-college “mechina”, or preparatory program, for Haredi men and women, to teach them subjects such as math, English and study skills, after which students are fully integrated into the university. Nearly 300 students have graduated this program, and, Professor Kupferman says, “not a single one has become non-religious.” The university also opened a leadership training program, which has so far had 100 participants. “This is good for them and it is good for us. We all learn from each other, and break stigmas on all sides. The mechina gives them a gradual bridge to mixed program.”

There are many who believe that many Haredim are so eager to earn their own living that they would pursue higher education even in integrated settings – and in fact 30% of the participants in the segregated programs said that they would do just that. Estee Rieder-Indursky says that the idea that there is no other way to get Haredi men into higher education is a “lie that CHE is telling.”

“The Haredi community is heterogeneous,” Professor Joel argues. “But when we listen to one particular Haredi leadership who wants to determine how things are done, then we are giving those most extreme voices more power, and we are hurting the other parts of the Haredi community who want something else. There is a lot of coercion – that if they learn in mixed places, the will be excommunicated, unable to find a shidduch, etc. We are currently collaborating with the powerful hegemony of the leadership. We don’t have to do this. It’s not in the best interest of the state or in the best interest of the Haredi community.”

Professor Ron Shapira, president of the Peres Academic Center, and Dr. Chaim Zicherman, Director of the Haredi campus of Kiryat Ono, agree. “The current generation of Haredim are knocking on the doors of Israeli society,” they wrote in a position paper to CHE. “Many young people sneak in under the radar, serve in the army, obtain a higher education, and enter the workforce. But the Haredi leadership is hesitant about these trends.”

The petitioners are also sympathetic to the dilemmas facing Haredi men. “A Haredi man who wants to study at university has to overcome a lot of obstacles,” Professor Kupferman says. “Being open to texts, being willing to engage in critical thinking – gender isn’t the only or even the biggest obstacle. If he is willing to overcome the other obstacles, he will be willing to overcome this one, too. There are many Haredi women and men who are thirsty for knowledge. With the right background and tools, they can fully integrate.”

Dr. Elana Maryles Sztokman is an award winning author, rabbinical student at Hebrew Union College, and frequent contributor to the Forward.


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