Environmental Protection Minister Idit Silman announced on Tuesday that a pilot program for gender-segregated bathing at national park springs will get underway this week.
Under this initiative, designated hours extending beyond the usual opening times will be set aside at both the Ein Haniya Nature Reserve, located in the Jerusalem Mountains, and the Enot Tsukim Nature Reserve near the Dead Sea.
Silman claimed this would be done "without compromising the experience for all visitors." However, the Israeli Nature and Parks Authority (INPA) stated that they cannot start the pilot without approval from the Justice Ministry. "We are waiting to see if there will be approval," INPA officials said.
Minister Silman pledged to implement this pilot several months prior. At that time, it was proposed that separate bathing would be permitted at the Enot Tsukim Nature Reserve and Gan HaShlosha (Sahne) National Park after closing hours, until 10 PM, as early as this summer. However, the decision to permit access to the nature reserve during evening hours, contrary to prevailing environmental and nature protection policies, was met with criticism.
It has now been decided that the pilot program at the Enot Tsukim Nature Reserve will take place on Wednesdays and Thursdays from 6:30am to 8am. Meanwhile, at the Ein Haniya Nature Reserve, the pilot will run on Sundays and Wednesdays from 5pm to 8pm. However, the Gan HaShlosha (Sahne) National Park will not participate in this pilot at the current stage.
Silman said that she expects that "even the greatest pluralists will welcome the attempt to allow every woman and man to enjoy nature resources according to their faith and religion."
The INPA suspended the previous pilot program after it generated controversy. This decision came after the Justice Ministry recommended that the INPA "pause the pilot until all related legal aspects are clarified". These include determining whether the authority has the jurisdiction to enforce gender-based segregation, as well as potential harm to public spaces which are meant to be accessible to all.
Silman also clarified that "In the framework of the pilot, visiting hours will be extended on several days, and two sites will be designated for separate bathing for women, men and mixed bathing. The activity will be conducted in an equitable and moderate manner, beyond regular opening hours. The authority will be able to implement the bathing after receiving approval from the relevant authorities, including the Justice Ministry."
Meanwhile, Israel Hofsheet (Be Free Israel), an organization advocating for policy change on issues of religion and state, sent a letter before action to Minister Silman and the INPA, demanding the "illegal" pilot be axed.
"Israeli families won't have to start their day uncertain about whether they can visit the nature reserve they planned to, or if it's a day when gender segregation rules apply," said Israel Hofsheet Executive Director Uri Keidar. "This is a situation that should not be. We will act through legal channels, and at the same time, we call on the entire public and their families to come to the reserves during opening hours and enjoy what the sites have to offer. Gender segregation must not be normalized."
On the other hand, Shai Glick, director of the Jewish human rights organization Btsalmo, which has previously raised the request for gender-segregated bathing, commended Minister Silman. "This is a day of celebration, finally all Israeli citizens, regardless of faith, will be able to enjoy the nature reserves.
I thank the minister and support her. We will continue to fight for the human rights of all Israeli citizens and especially for the rights of the religious and ultra-Orthodox public. I am also pleased that the values of nature will not be compromised."