The city council meeting at City Hall was coming to an end, and the usual disorder was worse than usual. Mayor Ehud Olmert and some of the city council members were already gathering their papers, preparing to leave the building. Nobody remembers what lit the fuse at that late hour (it was already after 10:30 p.m.), but suddenly city council member Shmuel Yitzhaki’s voice rose high above the din. Deputy mayor and head of the Finance Committee Eli Simhayof raised his hand but let it fall back on the desk. Olmert was still talking with one of his assistants and didn’t realize what was going on. But in the press gallery, a sudden stir was felt: We all knew that when Yitzhaki started to talk no one could stop him from saying what was on his mind and in his heart. And it was usually fine fodder for the media because Yitzhaki, unlike most of the members of the Shas Party, didn’t bother to play politically correct.

After the usual opening of “My dear colleagues, forgive me for keeping you up so late, but my conscience will not allow me to remain silent any longer,” Yitzhaki recounted with heart-breaking details the story of young haredi girls from Sephardi families who were not accepted to the prestigious Beit Ya’acov institutions for the simple reason that they were Sephardi. Yitzhaki told the assembly about 23 girls whose mothers kept calling him at all hours, weeping and begging him to “just do something” for the girls, who were still at home more than a month after the school year had started.

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Almost a decade has passed since that night and that impassioned speech. Every year, when everybody at Kikar Safra was busy showing his or her records of the success or the failure of the municipal education system, Yitzhaki would go on, like Cato the Old in Rome, and tell again and again the story of girls who had to prove that despite the color of their skin and of their mother’s scarf on their heads, they could be good enough for the Beit Ya’acov seminaries. But it didn’t help him much. Every year there were between 12 to 40 girls who were not accepted.

Benny Cohen, then head of the Haredi Education Department at the municipality, explained to me one day that it should not be confused with racism.

His explanation was astonishing. “In Ashkenazi haredi families,” said Cohen, “when a member leaves the religion, the rest of the family ostracizes him. In some extreme cases, they will even sit shiva for him or her because they fear an eventual impact on the other children. They would rather sacrifice one child than jeopardize the rest.

“But in Sephardi families,” he continued, “you can find a haredi son, a religious Zionist, a traditionalist and a totally secular child. They all respect their parents, share the same holiday or Shabbat meal and remain a rather close-knit family. It may look warm and beautiful, but haredi Ashkenazi families look upon it differently. They are afraid of a girl who might visit an aunt who has a TV at home and perhaps dresses in a way that is too provocative in their eyes. So they will never accept a girl whose family has ‘a problem,’” he said.

So why has the situation in Jerusalem never reached crisis proportions, like in Emmanuel where Ashkenazi parents withdrew their daughters from Beit Ya’acov after the High Court ruled that the principal had to admit Sephardi girls too – a step that eventually led to their imprisonment last week?

“The reason we haven’t been witnessing riots or mega demonstrations on this issue in Jerusalem is very simple,” explains Yitzhaki. “In Jerusalem, after a week, a month or two, the parents finally cave in and send their daughters to less prestigious schools. Being a large city, Jerusalem can offer more choice.”

Granted, this choice also means less prestigious schools, including Beit Margalit, a school named after the late wife of Shas spiritual leader Ovadia Yosef, created precisely to challenge this problem. In addition, the municipality provides transportation, and the girls are ultimately enrolled in haredi schools, including some Sephardi institutions or Ashkenazi haredi schools that are less strict than Beit Ya’acov.

Several years ago, Yoav Lalom, a Sephardi haredi Jerusalem resident, refused to accept this solution for his daughter. He contacted Yitzhaki, and the two began to consider a wide range of actions to solve the problem. Yitzhaki never dared to break the rabbi’s decree (forbidding any appeal to the state courts). But, as he told this journalist two years ago, Lalom, who had begun to study law at Kiryat Ono College, reached the conclusion that “the Zionist and state secular institutions are not as bad as we were told,” and he decided to break the rules and went to the (highly secular) High Court with his organization Noar Kahalacha to represent the Emmanuel families.

Today, less than three months before the school year starts, Yitzhaki says he already has the names of 200 Sephardi girls who applied to the Beit Ya’acov seminaries in the city but are still not registered.

I spoke to the mother of one of those girls on the phone. She is Ashkenazi, married to a Sephardi who was born in Israel. They have six children, the eldest of whom are two daughters of seminary age.

“The older one has fair skin, like me, and our name is not particularly Sephardi,” whispers the woman, who asked not to be identified, “but the younger one is dark-skinned. When I went to register her, the principal called me two days later and told me she couldn’t accept her. I tried to find out why but she wouldn’t say, just hinting that she wouldn’t suit the institution.

“She asked me a lot of questions about my husband’s family, which is very large, including some relatives who live in France. They are not all haredi, so what? After I insisted, the principal told me that it would be better not to insist, lest the eldest daughter would have to leave the institution. This is pure racism. My daughters are modest, totally haredi, and they are good students, but I felt so powerless. My husband wants to take the eldest out of the school, but I am reluctant. If we do so, there will be gossip – perhaps about our level of haredi status, who knows?” she says.

“We will struggle, but I know that even after that situation in Emmanuel, we will not obtain the 200 places we need,” says Itzhaki. “Some of the girls will have to give up on the best education available in the haredi system for another year.”

And the rest is history.
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