As many of you know, I live in Bayit Vegan, Jerusalem – a neighborhood where the vast majority of residents are Chareidi Jews, including those from the Lithuanian yeshiva world, Chassidim, Sephardim, Yemenite Jews, and followers of Rav Samson Raphael Hirsch. Our Chareidi neighborhood also has some converts, such as Ahuvah Gray, an African American convert to Judaism.
Through most of my adult life, I
have been involved in Jewish
outreach, and this includes the
period when I served as the
director of the Martin Steinberg
Center of the American Jewish
Congress – a center for Jewish
artists in the performing,
visual, and literary arts. (In
the States, I was known by my
English name, Jeff Oboler.)
Through my outreach work, I
became familiar with diverse
Jewish communities, and I also
became familiar with the
prejudices that some members in
each Jewish community have for
the members of the “other”
community. I also became
familiar with the Jewish media
and the way some journalists
reinforce these prejudices. My
experience leads me to make the
following painful but honest
statement: In my entire adult
life, I have never encountered
such a campaign of hatred
against particular Jewish
communities, as I have
encountered in much of the
Jewish media in Israel and the
Diaspora during the past few
years towards Chareidi men and
women and towards the Religious
Zionist men and women in Judah,
the Shomron and the Golan. I am
not speaking about honest
discussion and debates regarding
differing views; I am speaking
about hate-filled articles which
promote an ugly and distorted
stereotype of entire
communities. The most recent
focus of this vile hatred is
being directed against Chareidi
A bigoted Gentile once said that there must be something very evil about the Jews if so many people hate them. This is the response of many people with strong prejudices, and given the recent campaign of hatred against Chareidi men and women, there may be many people who are concluding that that folks like me must be terrible people. The recent campaign of hatred towards Chareidim emerged in full force after a peaceful rally of over one hundred thousand Chareidim against the imprisonment of some Chareidi parents who refused the orders of the Israeli Supreme Court to send their daughters to a certain school and who instead sent their daughters to a different school which met their higher religious standards. Some of the early reports in the media about this story presented a distorted report on this issue.
I have therefore attached an article by Rabbi Avi Shafran which corrects some of the distortions, and his article will be followed by related information and commentary:
NEW YORK (JTA) -- The recent Israeli Supreme Court ruling against parents of students in the Jewish town of Emanuel and the ensuing massive haredi-Orthodox demonstrations on the parents’ behalf present an opportunity either to jump to conclusions or objectively evaluate the facts.
Several Sephardic parents – Israelis of North African and Middle Eastern backgrounds – in the town brought a lawsuit aimed at preventing other parents of students who had been studying in the local Beit Yaakov girls’ school from maintaining a new school the latter group had established.
The court ruled that the new school was born of illegal ethnic discrimination and later that the “new school” parents’ subsequent second choice – to send their daughters to a school in another city – also was forbidden to them.
The court fined those parents for each day they refused to comply with its order to return their children to the Emanuel Beit Yaakov, threatened them with prison and then made good on the threat. On June 17 the parents, wearing their Sabbath clothes, were held aloft and given a send-off to the prison by a peaceful crowd of tens of thousands singing and dancing in a demonstration of support for the parents.
What gives here? There are two versions.
First, the one presented by most media: Racial prejudice lay at the root of the parents’ desire for a separate school for their children and their refusal to abide by the court ruling. The large number of supporters who turned out on their behalf reflected a general haredi Ashkenazi disdain for Sephardim.
Version 2: The jailed parents sought only to preserve the religious standards the Emanuel school had maintained for many years. Changing demographics over the years in Emanuel brought an influx of families with less stringent standards of Jewish observance, dress and insularity (including things like the use of the Internet and personal messaging, which are shunned by many haredim for religious reasons) than the original residents of the town.
Some of the longtime residents with school-age children saw a need for two different educational institutions to service Emanuel’s girls. That most of the new families happened to be of Sephardic heritage played no role at all in that decision.
The first version was endorsed by Israel’s Supreme Court, which pronounced that the new school evidenced prejudice and ordered the parents who had founded it to return their children to the Emanuel Beit Yaakov.
Those parents, however, insisted -- and continue to insist -- that the court finding was wrong and that their choice was a matter of religious conscience. They refused to be coerced to send their children to a school of the court’s choice and readily went to jail fighting for that right. The larger haredi community, wary of the Supreme Court in the best of circumstances and seeing it as having ignored clear facts in this case, rallied to the parents’ side.
Which version reflects the truth?
There is no doubt that discrimination against Sephardim exists in Israeli society, and that it is pernicious and must be fought wherever it appears. The question at issue in Emanuel, though, is whether such discrimination – or, rather, parents’ concerns for the tenor of their children’s educations – motivated the establishment of the new school.
Several simple facts, although oddly absent from most news reports, seem to point in one direction: More than a quarter of the girls who had been enrolled in the new school were Sephardim. And there were Ashkenazi girls who remained in the original Beit Yaakov, too. What is more, not one applicant to the new school was rejected. Any girl willing to abide by the school’s standards was welcomed, regardless of her ethnic background. The “segregation,” it seems, consisted of nothing more than two schools offering two different sets of religious standards.
The Supreme Court emperor’s nakedness may have been most succinctly voiced by one of the parents who went to jail as he was held aloft by the crowd and a reporter’s microphone was put before him.
“Are you a Sephardi?” asked the off-camera voice, its owner having apparently noticed the man’s complexion.
“Yes,” he replied, “A Yemenite.”
Then, with a wry smile at the absurdity of it all, he added, “A Yemenite is being taken in [to prison] for racism. You understand?”
Yet the headlines blared on, using charged phrases like “ethnic prejudice” and “segregation,” and portraying the jailed parents and their supporters as seeking to discriminate against Sephardim, invoking, as did the court, the struggle by American blacks for civil rights in the 1950s and '60s.
They got it backward. The haredi parents and marchers were championing their rights as parents to educate their children as they wish. They, if anyone, are the Martin Luther Kings here. The court, sad to say, assumed the Bull Connor role.
(Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs of Agudath Israel of America.)
And here is a relevant excerpt from the article, “Analysis: The fight in Emmanuel” by Ruth Eglash, 18/06/2010, titled, “Racism or religious freedom?”
“This needs to be looked at as a
religious problem, not a racial
problem,” Amiram Gonen –
professor emeritus of social
geography at Hebrew University
and an expert on the haredi
community and Israel’s social
demographics – told The
Jerusalem Post on Thursday.
“There are many yeshivot that have Sephardi students, as well as many schools, but these institutions do not accept everyone. Rather, they look at the degree of Orthodoxy; and if a person does not keep all of its rules, then they are not accepted,” he said.”
The following are excerpts from an article by Jonathan Rosenblum which will be published this week:
Advocate Mordechai Bas, who was appointed by the Education Ministry to evaluate the school, found that while the split of the school was administratively improper, “it was not done with the intention of discriminating against students because of their ethnic background.” “No parent who wanted or wants to register their daughters in the new school, and who was or is prepared to meet the conditions for doing so, has been refused,” Bas determined.
One might think that the religious restrictions in the Hassidic track are too strict. (My daughter, for instance, would not have been accepted.) In the age of Internet, however, when one student exposed to pornographic material can affect an entire class, the trend in all haredi schools has been towards greater protections.
And one might support a more inclusive approach, such as that of the Klausenberger hassidim in Netanya, whose school system includes a very large percentage of Sephardi girls from the orphanage founded by the late Klausenberger Rebbe. But there are dozens of government-supported hassidic girls schools Jerusalem and Bnei Brak made up primarily of students drawn from one hassidic court or another. (Ironically, when other hassidic groups broke away from the general Jerusalem Bais Yaakov system in 1989, Slonimer Chassidim remained behind with the “Lithuanians” and Sephardim.) The Court has explicitly recognized the right of Bais Yaakov schools to determine criterion of religious conduct. The only thing different in Emmanuel is that the Hassidic track shared the same building with the general track.
The Supreme Court did not question the finding that no parent seeking admission to the Hassidic track had been turned away. Rather Justice Levy summarily concluded that the under-representation of Sephardim in the Hassidic track demonstrates ipso facto discriminatory intent. By that standard, the Israeli Supreme Court is the most discriminatory institution in Israel.
Justice Levy is the only one of the fourteen permanent members of the current Court of Sephardi origin, a consistent pattern since 1948. Former Court President Aharon Barak once told a group of journalists that it would be impossible to increase Sephardi representation on the Court without diluting its quality. Yet that remark was largely covered up by the media.
After the Court, the most overwhelmingly Ashkenazi institution in Israel is broadcast journalism. Yet the media has been quick to hurl the racism label at Slonimer hassidim. I listened to radio interviews, in which the interviewer simply ignored hassidic parents when they cited the significant number of Sephardim in the Hassidic track, and returned, without pause, to badgering them about why they discriminated against Sephardim.
A Concluding Note:
My dear friend and brother, Shaya (Steve) Kelter, who is not Chareidi, told me how he is combating within his own circles negative stereotypes about Chareidi men and women. May each of us be inspired by his example, and may we combat within our own circles negative stereotypes of other Jews.
Be Well, and Shalom,
Yosef Ben Shlomo Hakohen