The trains from Tel Aviv were packed one evening last month when Inbal Boxerman, a 40-year-old mother of two, was blocked by a wall of men as she tried to board. One of them told her that women were not allowed on — the car was for men only.
Ms. Boxerman was stunned. It was a public train operated by Israel Railways, and segregated seating is illegal in the country. The men stopping her appeared to be protesters going home from a rally supporting the governing coalition, which includes extremist religious and far-right parties pushing for more sex segregation and a return to more traditional gender roles.
“I said, ‘For real?’” said Ms. Boxerman, who works in marketing. “And my friend came up and she also said, ‘Are you for real?’ But they just laughed and said, ‘Wait for the next train — you can sit in the way back.’ And then the doors slammed shut.”
Public transportation is the latest front of a culture war in Israel over the status of women in a society that is sharply divided between a secular majority and politically powerful minority of ultra-Orthodox Jews, who frown on the mixing of women and men in public.
Although the Supreme Court has ruled that it is against the law to force women to sit in separate sections on buses and trains, ultra-Orthodox women customarily board buses in their neighborhoods through the rear door and sit in the back. Now, the practice seems to be spreading to other parts of Israel.
Incidents like the one described by Ms. Boxerman have received widespread media attention since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu included extremist right-wing and ultra-Orthodox parties in his governing coalition late last year.
As part of an agreement with ultra-Orthodox allies that underpinned the formation of the coalition, Mr. Netanyahu made several concessions that have unsettled secular Israelis. Among them are proposals to segregate audiences by sex at some public events, to create new religious residential communities, to allow businesses to refuse to provide services based on religious beliefs, and to expand the powers of all-male rabbinical courts.
Supporters of expanding the rabbinical courts’ jurisdiction — such as Matan Kahana, a former religious affairs minister who remains in Parliament but is not in the governing coalition — 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.
“I’m all for the rabbinical courts — they are a symbol of Israeli sovereignty in our own land and our eternal connection to Hebrew law,” he said on Twitter earlier this year.
Although some women within the Likud-led coalition are loyal to carrying out its agenda, much of the push to strengthen the rabbinical courts is by the two ultra-Orthodox parties, which don’t allow women to run for office.
Israel’s laws have not been amended to reflect the concessions, but some fear that the changes are already coming, at the expense of women. The Israeli news media has been full of reports in recent months about incidents seen as discriminatory.
Bus drivers in central Tel Aviv and southern Eilat have refused to pick up young women, because they were wearing crop tops or workout clothes. Last month, ultra-Orthodox men in the religious town of Bnei Brak stopped a public bus and blocked the road because a woman was driving.
And Israel’s national emergency medical and disaster service is for the first time segregating men and women during the academic part of paramedic training undertaken to fulfill a national service requirement, the Israeli news media reported last week. A spokesman, Nadav Matzner, said that many of the students were religious, and emphasized that all of the clinical training will be in mixed-sex settings and that paramedics must provide care for everyone.
Over the past decade, sex segregation has seeped into many areas. Small public colleges that enroll ultra-Orthodox students seeking undergraduate degrees segregate classes by sex. Some drivers’ education and government job training courses have run sex-segregated sessions, and some public libraries post separate hours for girls and boys.
Now, the demands of the coalition’s ultra-Orthodox and far-right parties could radically transform the face of a country where equal rights for women are guaranteed in the 1948 declaration of independence and reinforced in several key Supreme Court decisions.
“What is going on here is not an issue of left and right — they are changing the rules of the game, and it will have a dramatic effect on women,” said Moran Zer Katzenstein, who heads Bonot Alternativa, a pro-democracy group, as well as a nonpartisan umbrella group of women’s organizations. “Our rights will be harmed first.”
Members of Bonot Alternativa show up at weekly antigovernment protests dressed in scarlet robes and white wimples that mimic those of the disenfranchised women forced to bear children in the dystopian television show based on Margaret Atwood’s novel “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
In a global gender gap report issued by the World Economic Forum in June that ranks 146 countries, Israel dropped to the 83rd place, from 60th place last year. Although the report ranked Israel first in terms of women’s education, the country’s ranking for women’s political empowerment slipped to 96th, just below Pakistan, from 61st last year.
There are fewer women in government than just a year ago. Two of the ultra-Orthodox parties in the governing coalition effectively ban women from running for office, ignoring a 2019 Supreme Court ruling saying that they had to end the practice.
One of the first bills put forth by the coalition’s ultra-Orthodox Shas party proposed jailing women for six months if they visited the holy site of the Western Wall in Jerusalem in “inappropriate” or immodest clothing. Although the bill drew so much outrage that it was dropped, the coalition has taken other steps that worry women.
It has barred the use of feminine nouns in advertisements for civil service jobs, even though Hebrew has distinct masculine and feminine forms for job titles. And although the government passed a law requiring electronic monitoring of men who are the subject of restraining orders because of domestic violence, critics say the law was significantly watered down so that it applies only to men who are deemed an immediate threat or have a criminal record.
Advocates for women are also concerned about the government’s efforts to weaken the Supreme Court, which has supported equal rights for women in several arenas, making it easier to sue over unequal pay, overturning the army’s ban on female fighter pilots — and ruling that mandatory sex segregation on public trains and buses is illegal.
Still, the court has allowed sex segregation in undergraduate college classrooms, a concession made to incentivize ultra-Orthodox men to get an education and join the work force, said Prof. Yofi Tirosh, vice dean of the Tel Aviv University Faculty of Law. Many ultra-Orthodox men engage in religious studies full time and do not work or serve in the army.
Professor Tirosh said that women would lose out as more financial resources are invested in men’s programs, female students are shunted into jobs typically seen as the domain of women, and sex segregation spreads to workplaces and public venues.
When women and men are seated separately at publicly funded shows and concerts to accommodate the wishes of the ultra-Orthodox, she said, “the women are seated in the back.”
The latest threat to the status of women is a law proposed by the coalition to expand the powers of the rabbinical courts, which base their rulings on Jewish religious law.
The Orthodox rabbinical court already has jurisdiction over divorce for all Jews in Israel and gives only men the power to formally dissolve a marriage. The proposed changes would also grant them possible jurisdiction over the economic aspects of a divorce and allow them to act as arbitrators in civil matters such as labor or contract disputes, as long as parties have consented. Critics of the bill say that consent is not always given freely.
If lawmakers approve the bill, which has already passed a preliminary hearing, it will reverse a 2006 Supreme Court ruling that curbed the powers of the rabbinical courts to arbitrate civil matters.
A more recent proposal would let the rabbinical courts determine child support in some circumstances, according to Prof. Ruth Halperin-Kaddari, founding director of the Rackman Center for the Advancement of the Status of Women at Bar Ilan University.
“It’s important to emphasize: The rabbinical courts have only male judges,” Professor Halperin-Kaddari said. “There is no other country in the global north, among states that are considered liberal democracies, that gives formal powers to a system that is totally, completely male and excludes women. Instead of abolishing this, Israel is going in the exact opposite direction and expanding their power.”