The headlines in Israel are filled with the mass arrest and imprisonment of a group of haredi parents for disobeying a court order commanding them to send their children to one school and not to another. The world media have discovered the story of intra-Jewish “racism” inside Israel and by and large are repeating the twist to the story provided by Israel’s largely leftist media. And, as usually happens, the Israeli media, by covering the story to suit their own biases and ideological agenda, are getting just about everything wrong.
Bear in mind that the Israeli media despise haredim, routinely portraying them as everything demonic and evil in the universe, down to and including “racist.” Ask any Israel or any non-Israeli who has heard about the judicial Mexican standoff regarding the girls’ school in Emmanuel and he or she will tell you it is all about “racism” on the part of Ashkenazi haredim against Sephardim/Mizrachim.
I Googled “Emmanuel girls school racism” as a set of key words and got 78,000 hits in English and 36,000 in Hebrew.
Putting aside the silliness of referring to intra-Jewish sub-ethnic tensions as “racism,” even a shallow reading beyond the headlines in Israel’s conscripted media is enough to show there is much more to the story than meets the blind eye.
Consider: the Shas party, which was created as a Sephardic religious power bloc, is backing the Ashkenazi parents in the feud (with a few individual Shas leaders on the other side). The leading Israeli journalist denouncing the courts and the media’s misrepresentation of the story is Maariv’s Ben Dror Yemini – who comes from a Yemenite family and is a leading voice of Sephardic pride and protest. And among the supposedly racist anti-Sephardic parents arrested by court order were several Sephardim.
On the other hand, the Supreme Court justices are predominantly Ashkenazi (one of those issuing the order to jail the parents, Edmund E. Levy, is Sephardi) as are the media talking heads cheering on the court and its “defense of democracy.”
While the Emmanuel controversy is complex, virtually nothing in the story has anything to do with ethnic prejudice or bigotry. It has a lot to do with haredi autonomy, state funding for independent haredi schools, school choice, and judicial tyranny.
First of all, despite the media’s obsession with painting the Ashkenazi parents from the Emmanuel girls’ school as anti-Sephardic bigots, the school itself is far more integrated than most secular schools in Israel, with a large number of the girls coming from Sephardic/Mizrachi families.
It turns out a handful of Sephardic girls were indeed denied admission to the first school, but the real reason had everything to do with religiosity and nothing to do with ethnicity. The school’s governing board believed the girls in question were not sufficiently committed to the school’s haredi lifestyle.
The Ashkenazi parents in the controversy are mainly members of the Slonim chassidic court, which has a track record of admitting girls from outside the court to its community school – so long as the girls comply with the community’s level of religiosity. (These include such matters as buttoning girls’ shirts to the neck and not one button shy of the neck, praying with the texts and pronunciations the Slonim use, and so on.)
The feud in the school is not between Ashkenazim and Sephardim but between haredim, who do not want any kids in the school whose notions of religiosity fall one shirt button below their own, and an imperious activist court that demands they do so.
Most Sephardic families live lifestyles and hold viewpoints that differ from those of the Slonim haredim, though some still prefer the Slonim school in Emmanuel for their kids. When the school admissions committee has doubts about the devotion of a student’s family to the school’s brand of observance, it sends the youngster instead to a nearby predominantly Sephardic girls school, where the standards for neck buttons are not as strict.
(I should point out here that if anyone suspects me of harboring any anti-Sephardic bigotry, they will have to contend with my wife, who was a proud Sephardic woman long before she lowered her standards and married my Ashkenazi self 25 years ago.)
The conflict was brought before the Israeli court when the family of two girls turned down by the school got themselves some lawyers, evidently paid for by the New Israel Fund. The judges presiding on the court sided with the petitioners. Hundreds of Ashkenazi parents in the school then decided to bus their kids away to a different school rather than have them sit in the same classroom with those they regard as insufficiently observant. The court ordered them to desist and to return their kids to the Emmanuel school. They refused. The court responded by ordering dozens of parents be imprisoned for contempt of court.
Let me be clear. I am all in favor of conditioning Israeli state funding to haredi schools on such things as their adding a bit of math and science to Talmud studies in order to make their students gainfully employable. If Rashi and Rambam could hold jobs and build careers alongside their scholarship, I see no reason why haredim in Israel today cannot. But if they are willing to forgo state funding, the state should let them run their schools as they see fit.
The fact is, both Labor and Likud – as a means of buying the support of the haredi parties for government coalitions – have long ladled out funding to haredi schools with no conditionality at all – including admissions criteria for students. Those dirty deals of tossing out pecuniary pork with no conditions in exchange for political backing created the current Emmanuel standoff.
I also believe in democracy and pluralism. I believe Jews in Israel have the right to live and to school their kids in ways different from my own notions. I also believe the worst fanatics in this story are the judicial activists on the court.
The court has picked a fight with the huge Israeli haredi community, and in response tens of thousands took to the streets in their black hats and long coats in the 95-degree heat to challenge the legitimacy of the court’s decision.
I do not see how the court can win this battle. And it shouldn’t.
Steven Plaut is a professor at Haifa University. His book “The Scout” is available at Amazon.com. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.