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Top Israeli Minister Pushes for Gender

Jan 27, 2024

Environmental Protection Minister Idit Silman pushed for a pilot plan for gender segregated bathing in public parks and nature reserves despite legal objections

Raya Shukri, the CEO of Israel's Nature and Parks Authority, said during a discussion several months ago that there are "legal difficulties" in having gender-segregated bathing at the authority's sites, pushing back against growing pressures by Environmental Protection Minister Idit Silman.

According to a legal opinion published about three years ago by former Deputy Attorney General Dina Zilber, any attempt by the Nature and Parks Authority to enforce gender separation does not simply raise "difficulties" – it is simply illegal.

But none of this seems to bother Silman and her colleagues. The minister is determined to show her contempt for the law, dismantling it in yet another area of life; to undermine equality, while paying lip service to multicultural consideration and sensitivity.

Our fears regarding the place of women in the public sphere are validated. We got used to it. From the expansion of the powers of the rabbinical courts to the normalization of gender segregation in cultural events, leisure activities and the academia. Only few still remember other principles, which forbid classifying individuals according to gender. The pilot plan for gender-segregated bathing is just another brick in the wall of separation that is gradually being built.

An experiment will begin next week in two of the Nature and Parks Authority's sites throughout August. It would allow gender-segregated bathing twice a week, before and after the regular opening hours. The experiment, which was first reported on Tuesday by the Israeli daily Yisrael Hayom, will take place in the Ein Hanya Spring near Jerusalem and at the Einot Tsukim (Ein Fashkha) reserve in the northern Dead Sea.

In a statement, Silman boasted that the experiment was underway "despite the fact that Zilber's legal opinion objected to gender-segregated events." There are few things that compare to putting a finger in the eye like that, perhaps only multiple trips abroad at the tax-payer's expense.

"I expect that even the great pluralists would welcome our attempt to allow every woman and man to enjoy [Israel's] natural resources according to his faith and religion," Silman added.

From the details published in the press by the Nature and Parks Authority, it seems that in addition to the two sites that would allow segregated-bathing, another will be defined as allowing mixed-gender swimming. From past experience, the requirements for "modest clothing" are expected to permeate all sites. It is difficult to satisfy the monster of segregation.

Contrary to Silman's populist claim, no one in Israel would think of interfering with one's expressions of religious belief in private or communal places. On the other hand, the public sphere is a whole different story as it must remain indifferent to the question of one's gender, and be open to all "regardless of race, religion or gender" as stated in the Declaration of Independence.

Any deviation from this should be carefully scrutinized. A gender-based restriction of access will result in a violation of equality, which was derived from Israel's Basic Law on Human Dignity. The principle of equality is simple, and it should be repeated and insisted upon, even in the face of pretentious populists like Silman. Segregation cannot really safe keep equality, even if equal conditions are promised.

This false equation must not be accepted. A testimony for this atrocity is seen in the various academic programs for the ultra-Orthodox, as well as in the prevailing custom in cultural events, when men sit in the front while women are in the back.

When gender segregation and the violation of basic rights involved in it are done by a governmental authority, special caution is required. "The starting point is that a government agency may not provide gender-segregated services," wrote Zilber in 2020. "Restricting access on the basis of gender undermines equality – especially when done by a government agency," she added, stressing that separate-sex hours "require explicit authorization in primary legislation, and cannot rely on the Nature and Parks Authority’s power. Even the promotion of an experiment in this matter requires explicit legislation." This argument has not lost its validity. Here is another reason to protect the judicial system.

"There is no legal source that grants the Nature and Parks Authority the jurisdiction to decide on gender-segregated events in the sites it manages," attorneys Hagai Kalai and Adia Shenvald who represent Israel Hofsheet ("Be Free Israel") wrote on Tuesday to Silman and Nature and Parks Authority. They added the obvious, at least in a law-abiding country – they cannot start this experiment.

"As a father of a young girl, I have no intention of starting to check each morning if we are allowed to go somewhere and if it bothers someone. Those who find it difficult to see families spending time together are welcome to stay home, where there's no danger of being exposed to such difficult sights," said Ori Keidar, CEO of Israel Hofsheet.

Sources in the Justice Ministry did not say whether the planned experiment has received their approval, and noted that "the subject is under consideration." The Nature and Parks Authority said in response that "following a request from the Environment Minister to allow separate bathing at several locations, the authority will conduct an experiment at two sites during August."

The authority further stated that the activity will take place in an "equal and proportionate manner, after regular operating hours. We intend to conduct the experiment in accordance with the law and will gladly make the sites accessible to all sectors."