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‘This is a religious war’

ByLARRY DERFNER
June 11, 2010 21:56

Ashkenazi,Sephardi hostility in Emmanuel.

Haredi girls.

haredi girls 311. (photo credit:Ariel Jerozolimski)

You wouldn’t have known it from the stillness and sleepiness in this haredi settlement in Samaria, but Sunday June 6 was a big day for Emmanuel. In an attempt to get around a High Court order that found their school leaders to be discriminating against Sephardim, two busloads of elementary school girls – who, incidentally, were about one-third Sephardi – were driven to Bnei Brak to study at a school run by the Belz Hassidim. It was their first and last day there; the Education Ministry warned the Belz school that if it allowed the Emmanuel girls in again, it would lose its government funding.

That evening, hundreds of Slonim Hassidim crowded into a local synagogue for the sheva brachot for the grandson of the Admor of Slonim, Rabbi Shmuel Barazovsky. The admor’s parable about Rabbi Akiva’s martyrdom turned up the following day on page one of the haredi newspaper Hamodia, which interpreted it as “a holy declaration... to stand guard over the purity of our education.”

During the ceremony, a brawl broke out when a leader of the opposing camp, local councilman Yoram Moshe Shafir, insisted on delivering a message to the admor, all the while rejecting the shouted demands from the congregants that he leave. “I saved that guy’s skin,” said the security guard present. “I defended him with my body against all the people who were pushing him, kicking him. If I hadn’t gotten him to leave, they would have done him serious harm.”

On a utility shed near the entrance to town, under the stenciled phrases, “Long live King Messiah” and “Modest is beautiful,” someone has spray-painted the words, “Slonim go home” and “Revenge” next to a happy face and the slogan, “Give a smile,” both signatures of the Bratslav ba’alei tshuva who are aligned against the local hassidim. Hassidic parents say their daughters had been called “Ashke-Naziot” in school by antagonistic Sephardi girls. From the opposite direction, Yediot Aharonot ran a two-page headline quoting a local Sephardi schoolgirl saying: “They called us ‘Sephara-jukiot’” – Sephardi cockroaches.

So you don’t have to look too far under the still, sleepy surface of Emmanuel to discover the hostility between the rival camps.

The question that’s arisen from Emmanuel, and by extension from the haredi world at large, is whether the Ashkenazim have been discriminating against the Sephardim. The focus is the settlement’s elementary schooling for girls, and the side on the defensive is the hassidim, who are trying to get around the court order that they send their girls back to school with the local, largely Sephardi, Shas-oriented majority.

Last August, Justice Edmond Levy wrote for the three-justice panel: “In the case before us, it is easy to see that the aim of the rules was plainly and simply to separate the girls of the hassidic (Ashkenazi) sector from their Sephardi peers... This was not coincidental and proves, like 1,000 witnesses, the discriminatory aims of those who initiated the separation.”

At the time, there was literally a wall dividing the hassidic from non-hassidic streams in the settlement’s Beit Ya’acov girls’ elementary school. Two years earlier, the town’s hassidic parents, along with some Sephardi allies, had prevailed on the principal to allow them to divide the school into two: a strict hassidic stream and a less strict, non-hassidic one. They built a wall in the middle of the school corridor as a well as a fence in the middle of the playground so there would be no contact between the girls on either side. To prevent the girls from even making contact with each other through the fence, the hassidic parents covered it with blue-and-white fabric.

Meanwhile, the hassidim did not comply with the court order to integrate, sending their daughters to a “pirate” school instead. The court threatened to fine the parents, as well as the haredi school system to which they belong, and even put the parents in jail if they didn’t integrate their daughters in Emmanuel. The case remains in court, and in the headlines, as a compromise is sought between the hassidim’s demands for purity, the Shas-style Sephardim’s demands for dignity and the state’s demands for integration.

THE HASSIDIM say they have nothing against Sephardim, the proof being that their breakaway hassidic stream includes about one-quarter Sephardi pupils. “What we care about is educating our children our own way, and whoever abides by our way, Sephardi or Ashkenazi, ahlan wasahlan” (Arabic for “welcome”), says Chaim Krimilovsky, a hassidic local councilman and one of the parents fighting the court ruling.

The mainstream Sephardim in Emmanuel cite a litany of baldly discriminatory acts against them as proof of the hassidim’s intent. “Last Hanukka, in my daughter’s kindergarten, they put on a play and all the Ashkenazi kids were Maccabees and all the Sephardi kids were Greeks. There was one girl half-Sephardi and half-Ashkenazi, and she played the Greeks’ elephant. It’s bad enough when you see this in adults, but when you see it ingrained in the kids, that’s already too much,” says Ophir Chelouche, financial controller of the local religious council, and a close associate of Rabbi Yehoyada Gadassi, the leading religious figure among the settlement’s Sephardim.

Asked why, if the hassidim are prejudiced against Sephardim, so many Sephardim joined their school, the Shas group says they were “bought off” by the hassidim, were afraid to oppose them or have an “inferiority complex” toward Ashkenazim. Rabbi Meir Elmaliah, who has two daughters studying with the hassidim since Beit Ya’acov was divided three years ago, says that’s bunk.

“All these stories about ethnic discrimination are a big lie,” says Elmaliah, who notes that he went to Sephardi yeshivot all his life and still identifies with Sephardi-style Judaism. “The hassidim asked me to join their school, I didn’t ask them. I wanted to educate my daughters like I was educated – in a strict environment, and that’s what the hassidim provide.”

Bar-Ilan University professor Menachem Friedman, considered the country’s leading authority on haredi society, says spokesmen for the Shas-oriented Sephardi majority in Emmanuel are a lot closer to the truth than spokesmen for the hassidim and their Sephardi allies.

“Hassidic movements like Slonim have a whole culture, a tradition, and their general feeling is that Sephardim are culturally inferior – not only in Emmanuel, but throughout haredi society. In non-haredi society, too, but not as much,” says Friedman. “And the tragedy is that many religious Sephardim have accepted this. The better students, the children of successful or scholarly religious Sephardim, don’t want to study in Sephardi schools. For them, getting into an Ashkenazi yeshiva is a symbol of success.”

EMMANUEL SITS on a hill about a 15-minute drive northwest of Ariel. By Israeli standards it’s shabby and far from spotless, but considering the depth of poverty here, it’s pretty well kept. There are lots of trees and greenery and the streets are so empty you can’t help hearing the birds sing.

The 3,000 residents, virtually all haredim, a large majority Sephardi, live mainly in run-down stucco tenements. There are a few nice, new, stone-brick apartment buildings, but there are also old concrete shells of buildings that were never finished. Starting in 1993, seven years of peace process followed by four years of terror scared people out of Emmanuel, which effectively went bankrupt. The recent years of quiet, however, have brought the contractors back, and new apartments are due to go on sale dirt cheap, for as little as $50,000 – if and when the settlement “freeze” ends.

“When Emmanuel was founded in 1983, [Ariel] Sharon said it was going to be the biggest city in Samaria, with 100,000 families,” recalls Avraham Luria, a spokesman for the local hassidim and member of the breakaway parents’ committee from Beit Ya’acov.

“Emmanuel was a fantasy, a mistake from the beginning, an inherent failure,” says Friedman. “People thought they could build a modern haredi city, but it’s too isolated. When Emmanuel started, I told an architect friend who was debating whether to take on a big project there that it would become a city of yeshivot – in other words, a city of poverty. A poor city can’t develop without a prosperous city next door. Then one of the settlement’s developers went bankrupt, and between that and the intifada, the town’s fate was sealed. And when that happens, the wealthier, more resourceful, ‘stronger’ families leave while the poor families stay behind.”

The growing number of empty, bargain-basement apartments attracted more poor residents, overwhelmingly Sephardi, including many hozrim bitshuva, or newly religious. “Their level of religiosity, by hassidic standards, is clearly not high. So the lines between them and the hassidim were drawn,” says Friedman.

At a glance, Emmanuel seems pretty well integrated. Boys with olive skin, black hair, long sidecurls and black kippot play soccer with boys who have pale skin, light brown hair, long sidecurls and black kippot. At the girls’ high school, also run by the prestigious, traditionally Ashkenazi Beit Ya’acov, a group of girls about 15 years old are walking home together. I ask what they think of the local school controversy, and one says warily, “That’s the adults’ business, we’re not involved.” I ask her if the girls she’s walking home with include both Sephardim and Ashkenazim, and she smiles. “I’m Sephardi, she’s Ashkenazi,” the girl says, pointing to the likewise smiling girl beside her. “We all get along great.”

Passing on the street are one or two bearded men in IDF uniforms; otherwise the men are all in black and white and the women all in long dresses. But  taking me on a brief walking tour, local councilman Krimilovsky, 37, a “mainstream hassid” and father of nine with a sunny disposition, says, “To you, everyone here looks the same, but we see all the little differences in appearance between the Slonim, the Bratslav, the Gur, between the old-style Yemenites and more modern Sephardim.

“With all due respect, you’re never going to understand haredi society. I still don’t understand it myself.”

IN AN office of Emmanuel’s poorly-looking city hall, Krimilovsky and Luria try to explain the mentality of hassidim and why they’re within their rights to keep their daughters in a separate school.

“It may seem strange to you that we make such an issue out of whether the girls are allowed to keep a collar button open or not, whether they’re allowed to roll up their sleeves or not, whether their socks cover their legs completely or not, but for us, it’s like heaven and earth,” says Luria, a Slonim Hassid and father of four.

“From the time they can walk, I raise my children in a hothouse. There’s no computer at home, no TV, no movies. I don’t want my children to be exposed to such things, so I don’t want them to go into a home that has such things, which means I don’t want them making friends with children who live in homes like these.”

(Krimilovsky, a more modern haredi who’s studying accounting, says he has a “kosher computer” at home that blocks “forbidden” Web sites, such as Ynet, the Web site of Yediot Aharonot.)

The men say that a few years ago, a “new element” was sending their young daughters to Beit Ya’acov, and their behavior was intolerable.

“Their language was very rough. For us, to call someone ‘meshuga’ is going pretty far, but some of these girls went a lot further,” says Krimilovsky. “Some went around in T-shirts. They wanted to learn new kinds of songs in class. My wife is a teacher there, and once she brought home a note that was being passed among some of the girls that said one of the teachers should have her bust enlarged, and another should have her bust reduced.”

“If my daughter was passing notes like that in class,” says Luria, “I’d sit shiva for her. No less.”

Krimilovsky goes on: “Some of the hozrim bitshuva are very rough types; they have very unsavory backgrounds. They play the radio loud, some have televisions, some of them smoke on Shabbat.”

So they and other hassidic parents built the wall and fence in Beit Ya’acov, set up their own elementary school within the building, taking some 75 of the roughly 250 pupils with them. All parents sending their daughters to the hassidic stream had to sign on a long list of strict requirements. The dress code stipulated that blouses must be worn with collars and sleeves “buttoned up,” skirts worn “without buttons in front or pockets in back... falling 10 cm. below the knee, including when the girl is seated,” and sweaters worn “without any sort of hood.” Also banned was bicycle riding – “for the sake of modesty.”

Furthermore, girls in the hassidic stream were prohibited from “making friends with girls who are not educated in Independent Education [haredi] schools.” Just to make sure, the girls were ordered to “avoid insisting that ‘we’re used to a different way’ to prevent unwanted conflicts among pupils.”

Against the charge of ethnic discrimination, Luria and Krimilovsky point to a 2008 report by Mordechai Bass, former general manager of the State Comptroller’s Office, who was appointed by the Education Ministry to study the separation at Beit Ya’acov. While finding that the hassidim had “acted against the law and in clear contempt of Education Ministry guidelines,” he also concluded that they’d divided the school “without the intent to discriminate between pupils on the basis of ethnic background, and no such discrimination exists there in practice.” Bass wrote that he reached this conclusion upon finding that 27 percent of the pupils who’d moved to the hassidic side were Sephardi, while 23% of those remaining on the “general” side were Ashkenazi.

Asked why they thought the Supreme Court ruled that the system was discriminatory, Luria said it was “media incitement” – the headlines shouting “apartheid” and the anecdotes told by Sephardi children of being humiliated by Ashkenazi children and teachers.

However, studies and prayer in the hassidic stream were done in the Ashkenazi pronunciation of Hebrew, and the rules required Sephardi parents to ensure that their daughters prayed even at home in the Ashkenazi pronunciation so they’d “become accustomed to praying as they do at school.” The hassidim, under court order to seek a compromise that would reintegrate the school, have since dropped this demand.

The hassidim see the controversy as a case of reverse religious coercion. “If the Supreme Court ordered you to educate your children in a way you could not tolerate, would you agree?” Krimilovsky asks. “This is a religious war.”

Friedman argues that the Education Ministry, backed by the Supreme Court, has the full right to insist on integration at Beit Ya’acov because the school, like all schools in the haredi Independent Education system, are funded 100% by the state.

“If they want to do like Natorei Karta and the other ultra-haredi communities that refuse all government funding, that set up their own privately funded schools, then the hassidim in Emmanuel can set any rules they want, discriminate any way they like, according to the law,” says Friedman. “But they’re not a private school, they’re a state-funded school, so they don’t have that privilege.”

A FEW minutes’ walk from city hall, married Sephardi men are sitting around tables on white plastic chairs, discussing/arguing holy texts. At the front of the room, a group of Sephardi boys in black hats are crowded around Rabbi Gadassi’s small desk, trying to say something clever enough or spirited enough to merit his recognition. “Boys, the rabbi is busy,” says one of the men, and they file out. Gadassi takes me into a cluttered little office for our interview.

With long sidecurls, black beard and round, rimless glasses, he looks like a Yemenite Jewish Al Pacino, and when he smiles his toothy smile and speaks in his soft, distracted way, the resemblance is even stronger.

Gadassi, 40, says that four years ago, on the instruction of Rabbi Shimon Ba’adani, a member of Shas’s Council of Torah Sages, he led a group of some 50 families from Elad to Emmanuel. “The city was empty, there were 400 empty apartments. People had left because of the discrimination and the terror attacks,” he says. He set up the Tana Dvei Eliahu (Aramaic for “Rabbi Eliahu taught”) synagogue, yeshiva, special yeshiva for hozrim bitshuva, kollel and girls’ elementary school.



He dismisses the hassidim’s claim that their concern is dati, not adati – religious, not ethnic. “Of course they say that, they can’t come out and admit that they’re prejudiced,” he says.

After the dispute began, says Gadassi, police showed up at his house one night and said the juvenile authorities wanted to question his 11-year-old son about a crime he allegedly committed. “They said he stole gum from the grocery store,” he says, adding that while he can’t prove it, he has no doubt that rival askanim, or behind-the-scenes operators, were behind the police visit.

“My son doesn’t steal, but even if he did, to send police to his parents’ house over such a thing? I told the police I wouldn’t let anyone interrogate him, but if they wanted me to put their questions to him, I would. They wrote out a report and left, and we never heard from them again.”

Another example of how the local school dispute has touched Gadassi personally is the story he tells of his 10-year-old daughter Batya. “She was friends with the Burstein girls, twins, they were in the same class at Beit Ya’acov, and they’d come together every day, either to our house or theirs. They’d wash up, eat, do their lessons, read, play – every day in each other’s house. Then after the wall went up in the school, she was going home one day and saw her friend and she called out, ‘Esti, Esti.’ And she told me the little girl turned away and kept walking. She asked me, ‘Abba, why won’t she talk to me?’ How do I explain this to her?”

Gadassi and his followers say the hassidim are smearing their community, especially the hozrim bitshuva, with false accusations. “They say people watch TV on Shabbat – there are no more than about four TVs in this whole town,” says Chelouche.

“We’re bringing these people to Torah,” says Gadassi. He says the community has agreed that if any girl’s parents are found smoking on Shabbat, or allowing mixed dancing at a wedding or bar mitzva, the girl will be expelled from school.

“There are no serious disagreements between us. They’re fighting over honor,” he says, “and honor isn’t worth what this is doing to our children, breaking up friendships, turning people against one another. My worst fear is that it’s going to spread beyond Emmanuel.”

Whether or not the case of Beit Ya’acov involves ethnic discrimination, Friedman says it comes against a long history of prejudice. “All the Ashkenazi haredim have been looking down on the Sephardi haredim for many, many years.” The result, he adds, is that “the Sephardi haredim have developed an inferiority complex.”

Asking directions, I give a lift to a woman in her 50s of Yemenite background and ask what she thinks of the dispute. Describing herself as a veteran of the settlement who busies herself with volunteer work, she echoes what the hassidim said, only more bluntly. “A lot of the Sephardim here are loud, they smoke on Purim – what can I say? You can’t change them, you can only keep them apart. The Ashkenazim here have helped the Sephardim a lot, and not all of them know how to say thank-you. Don’t get me wrong – there are lots and lots of great Sephardim here, but a lot of them have an inferiority complex.”

Driving out of Emmanuel, I give a lift to Ya’acov, a young Sephardi father on his way to work as a butcher in Kfar Saba. He says he and his family came here from Elad only a few months ago, and his daughter is too young for school, so he doesn’t know the issue in-depth. But when I ask if Sephardim are discriminated against in Emmanuel, he says they’re discriminated against everywhere.

“I saw it when I lived in Bnei Brak, I see it in Jerusalem,” Ya’acov says. “You always feel like the Ashkenazim are the big brother and the Sephardim are the little brother. It’s the will of God – I don’t know why, but that’s the way it is and that the way it’s going to be until the messiah returns.”

ON THE Wednesday before last, law clerk and religious activist Yoav Laloum, the driving force behind the High Court petition against the hassidim, returned to his Jerusalem office after a tour of the pashkevilim, or haredi denunciation posters, that had gone up around the city. “Out, profaner! Informers shall have no hope!” read the pashkevil, which included Laloum’s photo, address and telephone numbers. There is also a photo of Justice Levy. Laloum is described as a “collaborator of the Supreme Court and the ‘New Israel Fund.’” This is a dubious charge considering that he acts on the instructions of his spiritual leader, Rabbi Ya’acov Yosef, the eldest son of Shas mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef.

Asked how he got involved in this issue, Laloum, 31, says he’s “been involved in it since I was a little boy. I studied in the Independent Education system, I went to a Talmud Torah in [the Jerusalem haredi neighborhood] Sanhedria. The attitude toward Sephardi children was like, ‘We’re doing you a favor that we let you study here.’

“I remember I was 12 or 13, and I was taking the test to get into an Ashkenazi yeshiva, and the teacher, an Ashkenazi, told us, ‘The Sephardi yeshivot will always be Class B, and the Ashkenazi yeshivot will always be Class A.”

His tie loosened in the late afternoon, Laloum is busy taking calls from Shas associates – but also from his 10-year-old daughter, who had seen the pashkevilim in their neighborhood. “Stop crying,” he tells her gently. “Mommy and daddy are protecting you. Be calm, don’t be afraid... We’re not going to jail; if anybody’s going to jail, it’s them... Go over to your friend’s house and wait for mommy. Don’t worry, no one in the street knows you’re my daughter.”

He says he’s been inundated by hate calls. “I’m not worried for myself, but when it hits my children... What am I supposed to do, take out a gun license to protect my family if they come to my house? I only hope they do.”

A week ago 29 leading haredi rabbis, the “greatest of the generation” – all Ashkenazim except for two or three – issued a declaration in Hamodia for all haredim to “strengthen the hand of the parents in Emmanuel” and to “stand guard on this holy wall.” The dispute is due to continue before the Supreme Court on Tuesday.

Where is this leading? “I don’t know,” says Laloum, “but I know it’s not leading to anything good, educationally or spiritually.”   

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