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Religious Parties Threaten To Topple Government If Knesset Not Gender-Segregated

“It’s only fitting that the place that shares its name with the Hebrew term for a synagogue be governed by similar rules.”

knesset-chamberJerusalem, September 24 – Leaders of the ultra-orthodox parties in Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s governing coalition flexed their political muscles today, issuing an ultimatum that unless men and women Members of Knesset are seated in separate sections with a partition between them, they will leave the government and force its collapse.

As part of an ongoing period of growing confidence among parties representing Haredim that they can implement the policies they desire with greater assertiveness, legislators from Shas, Degel HaTorah, and Agudat Yisrael declared that unless a partition is erected in the Knesset plenum to separate the sexes, or, failing that, the women are relegated to the balcony that now seats visitors, they will quit the coalition, leaving Netanyahu with fewer than the 61 seats necessary for a parliamentary majority in the 120-member body. Together the three parties control 13 seats in the 66-seat coalition.

The parties issued the threat in a statement published in Haredi media and sent to the Prime Minister’s Office. “For too long the Jewish character and heritage of this country have been wrongly suppressed,” it declared. “The time has come – in fact the time came long ago – to reestablish classic Jewish norms in the Jewish State. Jewish dignity has always been foremost in the minds of our great Sages, and we therefore must insist that mingling of men and women in the plenum cease at once, with visual contact of men and women eliminated to the greatest degree possible. Only that way can proper modesty, decorum, and focus on our sacred work take place without undue distraction.”

“It’s only fitting that the place that shares its name with the Hebrew term for a synagogue be governed by similar rules,” explained MK Moshe Gafni of Degel Hatorah, which shares a six-seat alliance with Agudat Yisrael called United Torah Judaism, referring to the term “Beit Knesset,” or House of Assembly. “Mingling of men and women, with the distraction it causes and the consequent lack of dignity in the proceedings of this august body, has no place in either context.”

The demand follows years of continuing ultra-orthodox campaigns against non-orthodox prayer rites at the Western Wall and sweeping bans on public services of various kinds, such as public transportation, on the Sabbath. While Haredim account for about ten percent of the population, their parties’ position as kingmakers has led to outsize influence in decades of coalition governments.

If the sexes remain integrated and the Haredim make good on their threat, Netanyahu faces either early elections, a prospect he does not savor, or replacing them with parties currently in the Opposition. Of those, the Zionist Union alliance of Labor and HaTnuah, with 24 seats, would handily fill the gap, but powerful figures within the center-left alliance remain opposed to such a unity government. More likely, analysts predict, Yesh Atid would see few impediments to a Haredim-free government, and use its 11 seats to restore the majority to its status quo ante. In such a case, a condition of the new coalition agreement will likely include a law that requires all public officials to shake hands even with members of the opposite sex.

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