The Wall and its Shadow

   The controversy in Emanuel has certainly generated acrimony but even more confusion. What exactly happened is itself disputed, as is the essence of the dispute. What is certain is that this event illuminates some of the most pressing issues in the Jewish world, is not easily resolved, and might be a watershed moment. Or not. What follows is a preliminary analysis, because the true story has not fully emerged, and might never.

     The thumbnail sketch certainly sounded awful. As reported in the secular press, Ashkenazi parents in Emanuel, a largely Charedi settlement, refused to allow their children to study or socialize with Sefaradi girls in the same school. They even built a wall that divided the campus, and decreed there be separate lunch hours and recess time lest any mingling took place. After a lawsuit, Israel’s High Court ruled that the school must be integrated, and held in contempt (and jailed) parents who refused to comply with the Court order. Immense demonstrations ensued, by Charedim against the court, mainly in Yerushalayim and Bnai Brak, against the intervention of the secular court system in a Torah-education matter.

     Obviously, the secular media, willfully or not, followed the template of the American South, and trotted out terms like “separate but equal,” “segregation,” Bull Connor,” “racism,” and the like – and so got the story wrong. It seems that the dispute was not at all Ashkenazi v. Sefaradi; three of the families whose parents went to prison were Sefaradim. The “offensive” school in question has roughly a 27% Sefaradi population, and the school “discriminated against” has roughly a 33% Ashkenazi population. So racism was patently not the issue, although the accusation is so trite and familiar that it alone is tantamount to a conviction and sentence, and provoked a stream of lamentations about racism in the religious world. Good penance for the self-flagellation, or anti-religious, set.

     The real issue, apparently, is troubling for a different reason: the segregation was mandated because of religious differences between the parent bodies and hashkafot (world views) of the two schools. Parents who wanted their children to attend the “Charedi” school had to abide by a series of personal restrictions in their home life. The precise nature of those restrictions is unknown to me, but I can easily guess most of them – dress code, television, etc. The inability to create two completely separate schools led to the physical divisions on the school property, followed by the parental complaints about discrimination, the lawsuit and decision, and protests. Charedim do not take kindly to being ordered to compromise their religious practices, and especially by those – and Israel’s High Court is notorious in its disdain for the sanctity of Torah and the world-view of religious Jews (charedi, modern, or right-wing) – who do not share their core values.

     All sides are to blame for this fiasco, and the black eye given to Torah. The High Court’s involvement was a typical mistake; its tolerance for Torah is so infinitesimal that its decisions in this realm could never be accepted, no matter what they decided. They simply have no credibility, justifiably so, and most religious Jews – Chareidim or not – challenged to follow the Torah’s mandates or the dictates of this Court – so relentlessly anti-religious for many years – will obviously choose to obey the Torah, and not really think twice about it.

     But, what exactly was the great religious principle at stake here ? Certainly, parents have the right to create their own educational framework and insist on even very restrictive behavioral norms – but not when the school is publicly funded. Private schools have greater flexibility, and even if this particular Charedi school is somewhat autonomous, the government that provides the funding has the right to expand the student population, within reason.

     And there is the crux of the problem as I see it: were the differences between the religious standards in the two “schools” sufficient enough to warrant two separate schools  – and to build a wall between the schools – as if the less rigorous group is ritually impure ? Shouldn’t Jewish education encompass the notion of “love of all Jews” – not in theory but in practice, and especially all Jews who are committed to halacha ? Jewish law and practice are not so monolithic (to be sure, neither is it completely open-ended) that it cannot tolerate slightly different standards of practice, and even lower standards. Must we identify and isolate from religious schools children of parents who have a television or internet access in their homes, or whose the mothers don’t cover their hair or whose sleeves expose their forearms, or eat Rabbanut hashgacha, or serve in the army, or don’t serve in the army, or plan on learning full-time, or plan on working full-time ?

     One of my great teachers once said that there are Jews who act as if there are only 12 or 13 Jews in the whole world – only their tiny group constitutes the “true believers” – and everyone else is either illegitimate or inferior. But that is not how we were created; G-d formed us as a nation with all types of people, who would interact, learn from and try to better each other. That is why we were divided into twelve tribes, and why those tribes included great Torah scholars, farmers and craftsmen – and pious people, learned people, impious people and ignorant people. But we remain a nation, and that is best fostered by integration, not segregation.

     Saddest of all is that the protests, even if warranted, bring to the fore the great flaw of Charedi life and lifestyle – and interpretation of Torah. Advice in a nutshell: it is impolitic to bite the hand that feeds you. With an unemployment rate of close to 65% of males between the ages of 25-65 (astounding, and the highest in the industrial world), Charedim are financially sustained by a larger community that is growing more and more resentful of their antics, even as they are ignorant of their enormous contributions. Chesed is great, and Chevra Kadisha is wonderful, but those are not jobs that put money on the table. To vent against a society that works and fights for Charedim, when they largely absent themselves from these nation-building tasks, is imprudent, to say the least.

     To say the most, it puts the Torah in a negative light, broadcasting to the world – Jewish and general – that the Torah is incompatible with life in a modern state. It says, in essence, that a modern state cannot defend itself or support itself according to the laws of the Torah, and the Torah’s ideals can never be the foundation or governing policy of a real nation. That is heresy, but it is difficult to refute the charge that the Charedim are primarily responsible for fostering that heresy in our world.

    I understand their grievances, their antipathy to the High Court, and their fears of eroding the high standards they seek for themselves by interacting with society. But you can’t build a wall in a schoolyard and expect the insulted to pay for it and guard it. You can’t withdraw from the world because of fear. You can’t educate your children to be unproductive in society and expect others to foot the bill in perpetuity. Great acts of personal kindness cannot substitute for “you are praiseworthy when you eat the fruits of your own hands” (Psalms 128:2). Dedication to Torah study must accompany the obligation to love all Jews, especially when those differences are nuances and not fundamental principles of Judaism (and even in the latter case, the obligation remains to love those Jews as well). Otherwise we run the risk of disassociating ourselves from other Jews based on the minutiae of hat size or shape, following this Rebbi or that one, or other small things that become magnified amongst people that are so similar but do not at all define the individual’s spiritual state.

    We should remind ourselves that there is a prohibition to be poresh min hatzibur (separate oneself from the community), and that tzibur includes – as the acronym would have it – tzadikim, beinonim v’resha’im – the righteous, the intermediates and (even) the wicked. There are no “wicked” in this tale, and that should make it easier for all involved to co-exist, to build together, and to live and learn together, all for the glory of Hashem, His Torah and His people.

7 responses to “The Wall and its Shadow

  1. This is a beautiful article. Thank you for writing it!

  2. “It seems that the dispute was not at all Ashkenazi v. Sefaradi; three of the families whose parents went to prison were Sefaradim. The “offensive” school in question has roughly a 27% Sefaradi population, and the school “discriminated against” has roughly a 33% Ashkenazi population. So racism was patently not the issue, although the accusation is so trite and familiar that it alone is tantamount to a conviction and sentence, and provoked a stream of lamentations about racism in the religious world. Good penance for the self-flagellation, or anti-religious, set.”

    With all due respect, the petitioners in this case proved that indeed many Sefardi students were refused to attend the “chassidic track” despite their willingness to fully accept the stringent policies since the heads of the chassidic track imposed a *quota* that did not permit admitting Sefardi students in excess of 30% of the student body in order not to “tarnish the prestige of the institution.” This 30% quota is, unfortunately, not isolated to the school in Emanuel, but a long standing policy of numerous Batei Yaakov schools in Jerusalem, Bnei Beraq and Bet Shemesh, as the petitioners proved with copious evidence and case law.

    Moreover, it should be noted that the overwhelming majority of Emanuel is comprised of Sefardi haredim. To the extent that Sefardi students were refused to attend in order to ensure a >70% majority of Ashkenazi students is racism, plain and simple.

    Notwithstanding this fact, the undertaking that each student is required to make that she will daven with Ashkenazi pronunciation is unfair and has nothing to do with hashkafot and religious difference as if to say that adherence to one’s Sefardi family traditions reflects a lower level of religious observance.

    I look forward to your response.

    Tzion b’mishpat tipadeh v’shaveha b’tzdaka.

    B’virkas HaTorah and Tzom Kal,

  3. Your case is weakened with your argument, unless you posit that since Emanuel is majority Sefaradi-Charedi (which I do not know nor accept without question), therefore every school must have a Sefaradi majority. That is untenable, and that would be reverse racism. Who were the school’s founders – funders – teachers – original parent body ? My point was that racism can’t be the issue if the school is substantially Sefaradi, although it is a simplistic and irrefutable claim to make (in America, blacks do it all the time): just assume that racism exists (and deniers are ipso facto racists) and then every school/board/council/Knesset decision is automatically viewed through that prism. Like the old joke about the Jew rejected for the radio broadcasting job, who argued that he was only rejected because he was “J-J-J-Jewish,” he stuttered.
    Segregated schools in the American South were not 30% black, but 100% lily white.
    Regarding pronunciation, it is not uncommon in America for yeshivot to teach or insist on a uniform pronunciation of Hebrew. It makes it easier to teach in first grade than if one has to cater to various havarot in terms of both letters and vowels. If some disagree, that is where parenting – and the parents’ obligation to educate their children – enters the picture.

  4. Many thanks for your response.

    The policy that refuses to admit more than 30% of students that come from Sefardi homes is racism qua racism; granted it may be tantamount to only “semi-segregation” as opposed to the experience in the American South of over 50 years ago, but it is still an illegitimate policy if the school’s charter did not permit such a quota on racial grounds. As I noted, this policy is well documented and not isolated to Emanuel, and it will be very interesting to see how this plays out at other Bet Yaakov schools in Israel that operate in accordance with this illegitimate policy.

    You ask who were the school’s founders, teachers, original student body, etc. The school is an elementary school that is part of the national Bet Yaakov network and *not* a school founded by Hasidei Slonim. Put very simply, this school is a public school (a la the State of Israel that fortunately uses taxpayer money to fund religious schools and yeshivot) and operates under the charter granted by the State of Israel. Due to lack of funding and the minimum student body necessary for building their own school, the Slonimer hasidim preferred to take control over this local Bet Yaakov school; in other words, they were not the founders of the school, and they understandably preferred for their young children to attend a local school in their settlement instead of the prior arrangement of commuting at least one hour everyday from the heart of the Shomron to Bnei Beraq on a dangerous road. Notwithstanding these sincere intentions, IMHO the violation of the school charter is indeed a crime and the taking of state funds to transform a public school into a privately-operated school is an act of gezel.

    Just like the Shas movement has its own educational network of Ma’ayan Hahinukh Hatorani, I completely support an initiative of hasidim who wish to open and operate a school comprised of “lily white” ashkenazim with shared religious observance and identification (despite being personally and utterly opposed for a myriad of hashkafic, pedagogic reasons), inasmuch as it would be completely absurd to insist on the right of modern orthodox kids to attend a Satmar heder.

    But correct me if I am wrong, the Bet Yaakov Network, which operates under the auspices of Hinukh Atzmai and the charter granted by the Ministry of Education pursuant to which it receives significant government funding, is not authorized to maintain, albeit not a “lily white” policy, a restriction that permits admitting only up to 30% of the students of a certain population. Do you think that a similar policy could be adopted by a Bet Yaakov operating in the US? And if not, why is Israel any different?


  5. I have not heard or read anywhere that the school rejected Sefaradic children whose families adhered to the behavioral guidelines set. The 30% figure might them just be the number that qualified; would you also contend that the other school has a policy to limit Ashkenazim to 33%, because that is the figure of Ashkenazim ?

    As an aside, yeshivot in America will limit by percentage a sub-class that does not subscribe to the institutional purpose, but whose parents want their children to have a yeshiva education to keep them out of public school. E.g., I have heard that different schools have limits on how many non-shomer Shabbat children can be in a class – 10%? 20 ? At one point the feeling was that a class in a mainstream yeshiva with a 33% non-Shomer Shabbat composition would frustrate the institutional purpose. Here, too, then, the quotas are based on behavior, not ethnicity.

  6. My points stand. Obviously, no school can let in everyone who applies, and I am simply not prepared to accept the Court’s conclusion that the exclusions were ethnically based, and not behaviorally based. The issue with the plaintiff seems behaviorally based, although he clearly played the racism card.
    And US schools yeshivot may be private but since they all receive permissable govt funds they have to annually certify that they do not distinguish based on race or ethnic origin. So the analogy would be if “traditional” sefaradim (on Shabbat, they go to shul and the beach) were rejected by a US Beis Yaakov school, and they claimed racial discrimination. To prove your case, you would have to demonstrate that Ashkenazim of similar behaviors were accepted by the school. I haven’t heard that.

  7. I just saw this last comment and as Shabbat is rapidly approaching I do not have the time present the well-documented evidence of racial discrimination that was not disproven by the respondents in the Emanuel case and numerous other documented incidents of confirmed acts of racial discrimination against Sefardi students in a gan in Bnei Beraq, Batei Yaakov in Jerusalem and Bet Shemesh and the haredi school in Tifrah against Sefardi students from Ofaqim.

    Instead of presenting yet another hypothetical non-sequitor to skirt the facts in the case, it needs to be reiterated that Emanuel is a haredi settlement and whose population is 100% haredi, including the overwhelming Sefardi familes who founded the settlement in the 80’s, such as Aryeh Deri and numerous pre-Shas Edut Hamizrah haredim. In other words, there are no “traditional/masorati” families in Emanuel. To the best of my knowledge, none of the homes of the Sefardi girls that were forced to separate from the make-shift hassidic track that was an outright violation of the school’s charter have televisions and the fathers learn Torah on a full-time basis.

    In the meantime, best wishes for a Shabbat Shalom, and B”N I will provide a substantive response with documented evidence for you to consider, and I will sincerely await your equally substantive response to the merits of the case brought by the petitioners.