Israel caught between Haredim and a hard place

Joint degrees with ultra-Orthodox colleges counter to universities’ gender equity policies

August 1, 2013

Source: Alamy

Subject to restriction: Haredi women’s study options are more limited than men’s

Controversy has broken out in Israel over universities offering joint degrees with Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox colleges, where students are educated in gender-segregated classrooms.

When the Hebrew University of Jerusalem recently put forward proposals to offer BA degrees at the Jerusalem Haredi College, 300 scholars signed a petition of protest.

One of the leading opponents of the move is Orna Kupferman, vice-rector of the university. She said that working with Haredi campuses had “far more disadvantages than advantages”.

“The university is committed to strive for gender equality. I believe that it is too early to give up an alternative plan, in which Haredi students are integrated into our programmes.” 

Similar concerns have been expressed at Tel Aviv University, often seen as a bastion of secular Israel, where joint degrees are now being advertised with the nearby Haredi institution Mivchar College in Bnei Brak.

As in other countries, said David Katz, professor of history at Tel Aviv, Israel’s universities have tried to earn extra money through programmes targeting specific student groups such as Americans, policemen or the security services.

“Now we are looking to earn tuition from the ultra-Orthodox…the price we pay for doing this is too high,” he added.

“We are willing to compromise on the issue of gender discrimination for some reason, while we would never agree, say, to have separate programmes of study for Jews and Arabs, with Jews being able to study physics and philosophy and Arabs limited to automobile mechanics and carpentry.”

However, Professor Katz said that in effect this was what Tel Aviv had done, “by giving our name to a plan whereby women are not permitted to study economics, business or computers, but instead are limited to the ‘helping professions’ such as social work and physiotherapy”.

In a blog on the Feminist Law Professors site, Yofi Tirosh, senior lecturer in the Tel Aviv Faculty of Law, argues that state efforts to integrate the ultra-Orthodox into the military and the labour market have caused “severe damage to sex equality”.

In most gender-segregated programmes, “male students are promised that they will not be taught by female lecturers (but male professors do teach women)”, she writes. “For deans and staff developers, women then become less attractive as faculty members because they are less employable.

“It is hard to see how subjects such as law, psychology or nursing can be taught while the academic institution agrees to abide by a fundamentally non-egalitarian rule, contradicting basic humanistic and liberal values.”

But Manuel Trajtenberg, an economist at Tel Aviv who also serves as head of the Planning and Budgeting Committee at the Israeli Council for Higher Education, said that around 70 per cent of the Haredi students in all fields were women.

“Some people in some of our universities would rather condemn those Haredim that want to work to only manual jobs than offer them a decent education and hence the prospect of good jobs, at the price of teaching them in classes that are separated by gender, thus respecting their preferences,” he said.

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