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Dec 21, 2011

Is Lack Of Gender-Segregation Discriminatory?

There was just an interesting court decision about a woman's ability to claim the lack of gender-segregation as being discriminatory.

When one goes on the unemployment rolls in Israel, one must go down to the unemployment offices, register with documentation that you lost your job, and then return regularly to check for any jobs that might have come in that they decide are compatible with your profile. If a potential job comes up in the system, you would be given a paper and be sent to the relevant company to interview for the job. If the company rejects you, for whatever reason, they will sign a paper for the unemployment office informing them of why they didnt hire you for that job. If the job is offered to you, you have to take it. You can reject the job offer, but then you will almost always lose your unemployment rights. The only way to keep unemployment rights after rejecting a job offer would be to prove that you were incapable to doing that work, which might be difficult considering the company thought you were capable, though the interviewing company could still reject you after the interview for a variety of reasons..

It is not really such a big deal. I remember when I collected unemployment for a period of time a couple of years ago, potential jobs occasionally came up in the system as relevant for me - they were generally easy to reject right away for various reasons - one job required that I speak French, and I don't speak French. Another job I remember was sort of connected to me - because I was registered in the computer industry, the system spit out all sorts of computer jobs and the clerk would simply ask me if I know this or that - when I said no the job was immediately marked as irrelevant and when I said yes I had to go to the interview.

At that stage I did not have to prove anything - it was easy to reject a potential offer by saying I don't know that field. Once I went on an interview it would have been more difficult to reject while continuing to collect money from the system.

Globes is reporting about a Haredi woman who was collecting unemployment. When she was offered a job through the unemployment system, she refused to accept any such job offers that were for workplaces that did not have gender-separation. It seems that the unemployment office did not accept that as a valid reason to refuse a job and cancelled her unemployment benefits when she did not back down. She appealed the decision to the labor court.

The labor court approved the decision of the unemployment office to cancel her benefits. The judge said that the appelant's demand to only work in an environment that separates men and women is enough of a reason to cancel her rights to unemployment. Among the reasons to reject her appeal is that accepting it would lead to supporting the standardization of discrimination and the encouraging of women to not integrate into the workforce. As well, the judge said, establishing the right to unemployment benefits under such circumstances would encourage discriminatory criteria and would be doing so from the public coffers.

The judge rejected the validity of the appelant's claim that working in a mixed environment is against her religious beliefs saying that even if the appellant feels her personal honor has been harmed by the decision of the unemployment office, accepting her claim would damage the honor and rights of many other women who seek equality in the workplace.  

The judge ruled that the appelant was not discriminated against, relative to other secular people receiving unemployment. At most, the special considerations relevant to her beliefs were not accepted.

The judge even closed her arguments quoting Jewish sources saying that a woman is allowed, under certain conditions, for the purposes of parnassa to remain in an office even with just one other man.

I don't know how relevant that last quote is to anything. It seems out of place for her to tell any person what level of halacha to keep or what stringencies or leniencies to rely upon. At most she can say, as she said, that the public coffers don't need to pay for your personal preferences.

Despite that, and with the knowledge that I am not a lawyer or other type of expert in the relevant laws, it seems strange to me that a person's religious beliefs, without arguing whether or not they are valid beliefs, are not protected by the courts because of how they would theoretically affect other people.

If an unemployed Muslim was to refuse work in a pork slaughterhouse based on his religious beliefs, would the courts say that his belief must take a backseat to the secular public's belief that there is nothing wrong with working in a pork factory? Would supporting his refusal mean harming other people's ability to work there? If an unemployed Catholic was offered a job in an abortion clinic (if abortion was legal) based on his religious beliefs, would the courts say that he did not have the right to refuse because doing so would harm the right's of the people who support abortion?

The concept of the suit itself is a very interesting twist. Gender-segregation is the hallmark of discrimination. The appelant wanted to turn that around and say that not providing gender-segregation was discriminatory. That would be like an African American, segregation was done away with, suing saying he insists on only being in a black classroom or to sit in the back of the bus with other African Americans as sitting with white people is against his beliefs.


  1. I am certainly no expert on Israeli law, but it seems to me both the judge's last remark and some common sense are necessary.

    In the first place it would become impossible to run a system at all. What would you say to a fellow who said that he can't be outside the beis medrish for more than 3 hours a day? Someone whose "sincere belief" won't allow them to work without first sacrificing a co-worker to whatever deity he worships? A nudist who won't wear clothes to work? Can they all get unemployment benefits?

    In the second, what the woman demands is a gross distortion of halacha. Recall that Chazal forbid workers (in a society where the workday was from dawn to dusk) from saying shmoneh esrei or the last bracha of bentching. And recall the story of R. Yisroel Salanter and the netilas yadayim. No one has any right to practice a chumra at someone else's expense. Which is why the judge's last comment is relevant as a matter of halacha if not Israeli law. Chumra can be a wonderul thing in increasing one's connection to God, but the halacha sets limits.

  2. I agree with Mike S. The courts can and do respect religious beliefs, but they do have to draw a line somewhere, because respecting one person's values often means impinging on another person's values, or the public's interest in not paying unemployment to people that could be working. By bringing halachas of yichud into the decision, I think the judge was indicating that a normative religious requirement might have more weight than a non-normative requirement. If judges were not allowed to make qualitative judgements in such matters, I think they would have to reject any type of religious justification for refusing a job offer, because otherwise, there would be no limit to the nature of the justifications that could be used.


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