This article examines the separation of boys and girls in religious schools in Israel and the current Israeli policy that aims to balance the right of equality with the right of denominational education in state-funded, religious schools. It draws on the legacy of the case of United States v Virginia and the subsequent regulations published by the United States Department of Education in 2006 in order to determine when single-sex education may be compatible with equality. It then examines both the relevance and the application of the criteria developed in the United States to religious schools in Israel.
The article reviews and examines the two main justifications for single-sex education: cultural/religious and feminist. The right to establish single-sex educational institutions is perceived to be part of a minority group's right to culture. In conservative cultures, separation between men and women is often justified as a means of preserving modesty and as a necessity in order to educate and train men and women towards their respective social roles. More often than not, their justifications are incompatible with liberal notions of gender equality and dignity.
Separation of men and women in the area of education is often also justified, however, from a feminist standpoint, which is rooted in pedagogical theories. Proponents of single-sex education argue that women-only educational institutions circumvent the inherent bias against women prevalent in coeducational schools, relying on research that indicates that girls perform better in girl-only schools, and attributing this both to the method of study and the educational environment of girl-only schools. They argue that, while separation in other areas of life may be humiliating, in education it has the potential of being empowering.
The goal of this article is to examine how the two types of justification come into play in single-sex religious education in Israel. The article claims that where separation between boys and girls is justified by cultural and religious arguments, it must withstand the tests developed in the case law for the legality of practices that are incompatible with equality. It also argues that even where separation is permissible, the manner in which it is carried out should be regulated and supervised to ensure the minimum violation of equality.