Fighting religious extremism and gender segregation in the public domain
Israeli law prohibits gender segregation and the exclusion of women in most public settings. However, due to pressure by certain extreme elements in the Haredi community and the mistaken assumption that the entire Haredi public wants this type of segregation, it has become common to encounter public settings with a physical separation between men and women, the removal of women’s images, banning a woman from speaking, signs demanding that women observe extreme modesty standards, and other practices that discriminate against women in the public domain, despite it being not only illegal, but also immoral.
IRAC plays a lead role in battling attempts by religious extremists to limit the participation and visibility of women in the public sphere in Israel, reversing the phenomena of gender segregation and exclusion and achieving remarkable success. IRAC’s legal accomplishments include a Supreme Court ruling that made gender segregation on public transportation illegal, a class action suit against a public radio station that refused to put women on the air, effectively ending the practice of gender segregated entrances to public health clinics and gender segregation at funerals, an Attorney General report that strongly condemned gender segregation and exclusionary practices and ordered governmental ministries to address them, and a recent ruling forcing the Bet Shemesh municipality to remove so-called “modesty signs” from the streets. IRAC now works to safeguard the progress achieved so far by keeping close tabs on known problem areas and by confronting new hot spots head-on as they appear.
Rights on Flights
We won a precedent-setting verdict in June 2017 in our case against El Al on behalf of Renee Rabinowitz, an 82-year old holocaust survivor and retired lawyer who was pressured by an El Al flight attendant to switch seats because an ultra-Orthodox man refused to sit next to her. The court ruled in her favor awarding her 6500 NIS damages, prohibiting El Al to allow seat changes based on gender and requiring them to outline this in their policies and staff training. We are now taking the battle for equality to the next level. To ensure that El Al upholds June's court ruling, we are beginning a public media campaign to inform the public about the court ruling, and inform women of their rights on flights. The campaign launched with the release of the video below, and we call on anyone who experiences or witnesses the now illegal phenomenon to contact us. We planned to continue the campaign with a billboard in Ben Gurion airport informing women of their rights on flights during the Passover holiday, however the airport illegally refused to post our billboard.
Modesty signs: IRAC has been fighting street signs restricting the entry of women or demanding that women dress modestly that are posted on the main streets of Bet Shemesh. Representing four Orthodox women from Bet Shemesh, in 2015 IRAC won a court ruling that accepted our position that the municipality’s failure to take down the signs caused damage to women in the city. The court awarded each of the four women damages in the amount of 15,000 shekels and legal expenses. In May 2015, we filed another petition asking the court for an administrative order against the municipality of Bet Shemesh for its continued refusal to take down the modesty signs from the streets. The municipality removed some of the signs, but not all. A Supreme Court hearing was held at the beginning of December 2017, during which the Court ruled that all modesty signs must be removed, setting a precedent for their removal all over the country. Since this ruling, the signs have been removed and replaced over and over. Additionally, the names and contact information of the women petitioning for the signs’ removal were printed and distributed in Bet Shemesh, putting them and their families in danger. An additional hearing was held at the beginning of February 2018 at which the Court said that while the Municipality of Bet Shemesh had made progress towards the removal of the signs and protection of the women of Bet Shemesh, they had not made enough. They were given a month to install security cameras and remove all modesty signs in the city and then are to report back, with the hope that the Supreme Court will then be able to close the case. We will continue to monitor the situation and work to ensure the women of Bet Shemesh are safe, and the precedent set by the Supreme Court ruling is applied.
Representing the religious women’s organization Kolech, IRAC pioneered a class action suit against the ultra-Orthodox Kol Barama public radio station that refused to put women on the air. This is the first class-action suit on civil rights in Israel. We achieved a significant breakthrough in September 2014, when the Jerusalem District Court approved our claim against the station for excluding women from the station’s broadcasts. The court also ruled that the discrimination warrants the payment of damages to all women listeners who have been discriminated against by the this practice. The radio station appealed the decision and in December 2015 the court gave its verdict rejecting the station’s appeal. The verdict allows all private entities in Israel to be sued in a class-action suit if they violate Israel’s anti-discrimination laws, and that the lawsuits can also be filed by organizations representing people who cannot sue themselves (such as Haredi women). The case is currently winding down and we are in the process of negotiating the amount Kol Barama will pay in damages. A hearing was held in September 2016 and testimonies on the amount of damages were heard in December 2016. Witness testimonies were heard to determine the amount of damages to be awarded to those women harmed by not allowing women to be heard on the air. We have since submitted a summary of our claims to the court and are awaiting a final decision.
Gender segregation in the military
The Israeli Defense Forces is Israel’s one true meritocracy and is the place where many young Israelis gain the leadership skills that launch their careers. To encourage the enlistment of the ultra-Orthodox men, special army tracks have been established that promise segregation between men and women, including separate enlistment days, a male-only command staff, women-free bases and no direct contact with female soldiers. Many instructors in certain areas of the army are women, and the creation of gender free bases robs thousands of Israeli women of these posts. We are currently collecting testimonies of women soldiers who were harmed by women-free areas in the army.
Gender segregation in higher education
To encourage Haredim to pursue higher education, separate Haredi college campuses were created. These campuses employ only men, have modesty requirements for women, and have gender segregation in classes and libraries. We are filing a petition together with ACRI and the Israel Women's Network against segregation on campuses.
Gender segregation in public libraries
We filed a lawsuit on behalf of a woman and son who were turned away from a public library in Rishon LeTzion because it was open only for the Haredi public that day. We are currently awaiting the court's decision.
The challenges ahead:
IRAC continues to monitor the issue of gender segregation and exclusion in the public sphere. The rising hot spots are the IDF and institutions of higher learning. With the push to integrate the ultra-Orthodox into the army, and into universities and colleges more and more incidents of gender segregation and exclusion pop up with separate tracks of learning in universities, and separate army units and bases (as discussed above). We continue to monitor instances of gender segregation and exclusion and report them as they occur.