Last month, Inbal Boxerman, a 40-year-old mother of two, found herself blocked from boarding a train in Tel Aviv by a group of men who informed her that the car was for men only. This incident occurred on a public train operated by Israel Railways, despite the fact that segregated seating is illegal in the country. The men who prevented Ms. Boxerman from boarding were apparently protestors returning from a rally supporting the coalition government, which includes extremist religious and far-right parties pushing for increased sex segregation and a return to traditional gender roles.
Sex segregation has become a battleground in Israel’s ongoing culture war over the role of women in society. Israel is deeply divided between a secular majority and a politically powerful ultra-Orthodox Jewish minority who disapprove of intermingling between men and women in public spaces. While the Supreme Court has ruled against forcing women to sit in separate sections on buses and trains, ultra-Orthodox women often board buses in their neighborhoods through the rear door and sit in the back. This practice now seems to be spreading to other parts of the country.
Incidents like the one experienced by Ms. Boxerman have gained widespread media attention since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu formed a coalition government late last year that included extremist religious and far-right parties. As part of the agreement with ultra-Orthodox allies, Netanyahu made several concessions that have unsettled secular Israelis. These include proposals to segregate audiences by sex at public events, create religious residential communities, allow businesses to refuse services based on religious beliefs, and expand the powers of all-male rabbinical courts.
Supporters of expanding the rabbinical courts argue that, as a pluralistic society, Israel should tolerate sex segregation in some arenas to accommodate the ultra-Orthodox for whom it is a way of life. However, critics fear that these changes will come at the expense of women’s rights. There have already been numerous reports in the Israeli media of incidents seen as discriminatory, such as bus drivers refusing to pick up young women because of their attire and ultra-Orthodox men blocking a public bus because a woman was driving.
The demands of the ultra-Orthodox and far-right parties in the coalition could fundamentally transform a country where equal rights for women are enshrined in the declaration of independence and supported by Supreme Court decisions. Advocates for women are concerned about the erosion of women’s rights, such as weakening the Supreme Court and allowing sex segregation in various public venues and workplaces.
One proposed law, currently being considered, would expand the powers of the rabbinical courts, giving them jurisdiction over divorce, economic aspects of divorce, and the ability to act as arbitrators in civil matters. Critics argue that this would curtail women’s rights and autonomy, as the rabbinical courts already grant only men the power to dissolve marriages and have a history of making decisions that favor men.
Israel’s ranking in the World Economic Forum’s global gender gap report has also declined, dropping to 83rd place out of 146 countries. While Israel ranks first in terms of women’s education, its ranking for women’s political empowerment has slipped to 96th. This is partly due to the inclusion of ultra-Orthodox parties in the government, which effectively ban women from running for office.
The status of women in Israel is under threat, and the actions and concessions made by the coalition government could have lasting effects on women’s rights and equality. Women’s rights activists are fearful of the direction the country is headed and are working to push back against these regressive changes that undermine the progress made in ensuring equal rights for all.