The controversy is rooted in the question of whether gender separation is inconsistent with equality as a fundamental value of liberal democracy, or whether it should be viewed as a pragmatic measure in the effort to integrate the Haredim in Israel’s economy and the expression of a pluralistic and culturally-tolerant worldview that allows minority groups to preserve their unique character even while integrating in general society. In this context, one might argue that even if the separation can be viewed as a manifestation of pluralism, red lines should nevertheless be drawn with regard to other principles, such as core studies, which, even if they are not fully compatible with the Haredi communal character, may nevertheless uphold a basic liberal-democratic value: the “right to exit.”
Today, a young Haredi person who wishes to leave the community faces objective difficulties due to the lack of education or skills that would enable him/her to “survive” in the general society. Therefore the “right to exit” may require core studies in English, math and civics even this contravenes Haredi norms. Additionally, secular professional entities have expressed surprise that the courts are receptive to the idea of separate and segregated education systems, with budgets in the billions of shekels, but is unwilling to compromise on the employment-integration effort. Thus, the value of equality and the struggle against the exclusion of women are important, but insisting on them with no room for compromise, even at the level of vocational training, reinforces the walls of the ghetto, harms the vital national interest of Haredi integration in the labor market, and ultimately plays into the hands of Haredi extremists.
It is important to note that the Haredi demand for gender separation is not actually a stringent halachic demand. There are a great many Haredi men and women in Israel’s labor market and institutions of higher education participating in mixed frameworks. Their demand is really a demand for identity and status symbols, and an attempt to maintain the normative boundaries of Haredi society. One should not conclude that the Haredi demand need can be easily dismissed; rather, one should understand that such demands are negotiable, and that at certain points compromises may be reached based on mutual concessions.