“The Price of Racism,” screamed the headline in one of Israel’s main dailies on Thursday, as the debate continued to rage over what the authorities and the media have labeled unabashed racial discrimination and segregation by ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews against a Sephardi minority in the town of Emmanuel.

However, as thousands of haredim took to the streets in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak Thursday afternoon to protest the High Court of Justice’s order earlier this week to incarcerate 43 couples that had refused to send their daughters to the Beit Ya’acov school alongside girls of Sephardi heritage, the debate turned to the right of religious freedom and to what is seen by some as the continued persecution of the ultra-Orthodox by the secular State of Israel.

Those defying the court’s order claim that their battle is not racially oriented, but based on religious beliefs.

“The ethnic question has never concerned us. I don’t mind if my daughters study in a class with 50 Sephardi girls. But we cannot accept anyone whose family smokes on Shabbat,” said the father of one of the girls in a previous court hearing.

That said, the court found shocking evidence that Sephardi students enrolled at the Independent Education Center-run school – a private entity that also receives state funding – had been singled out and grouped in a separate track. In effect, the institution had been physically divided – with separate entrances, separate teachers‚ separate rooms, separate playgrounds and even different uniforms for the two groups of girls.

Last August, when the High Court demanded that these physical barriers be removed, some of the Ashkenazi parents stopped sending their children to the school and set up a pirate learning center nearby.

Since then, the local media has obsessed over the case, using it to highlight old social and racial divides between Jews from the West and Jews from the East.

While the debate over whether there is still a racial division between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews in Israeli society is ongoing, what has become clear from this case is that dissension between this country’s religious and secular communities is reaching a fever pitch.

The Emmanuel story is only the latest in a series of events that have underpinned this tension. Thursday’s mass demonstration follows angry protests from religious Jews over everything from interfering social workers, to the opening of a Jerusalem parking lot on Shabbat, to the mass removal of graves in order to build an emergency room at Ashkelon’s Barzilai Hospital, and so on.

“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.

According to Gonen, the haredi community has been making strides in recent years to bridge the gap with the secular mainstream, finding work and choosing to study in public universities. He believes the authorities and the media have been depicting haredim in a negative light and bullying them to change.

“The court’s ruling this week and the media’s approach to this case has caused more problems than it has solved,” said the professor, adding that the concept of segregation all depends on how you look at things. For example, when the Shas party set up Sephardi-only schools, people saw it as empowering and not discriminatory.

Describing himself as totally secular, Gonen added: “Israel is a multicultural society, and a decision was made when the state was formed to create three major educational tracks. Within each of these three tracks, more sub-tracks have been made for each group. This is our chosen way of doing things here. Israel decided not to be a melting pot.”

Gonen pointed out that despite the existence of schools for the Sephardi religious community, “many Sephardi parents chose to send their children to Ashkenazi schools because they believe the educational framework is much better.”

“We should be asking why these girls in Emmanuel betrayed their own ethnicity and did not go to the Sephardi school there. Improving these schools is one of the solutions to this discrimination. The state should be looking into that, not punishing the parents,” he said.

“We need to be smart,” continued Gonen, who has been intensely involved in efforts to encourage haredi students to study in mainstream universities. “We could have tried a completely different set of tactics, such as removing state funding from the school.”

Gonen explained that “my philosophy is if you can’t beat them, you have to try to work with them, but what people are doing here in the last two to three weeks is just beating them [the haredi community] into submission.”

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