Legal debates about racism have a distinctly different look in Israel 2013 than
they did a few short decades ago in the Jewish State and elsewhere.
High Court of Justice on Thursday encouraged Sephardi haredi petitioners
complaining of discriminatory “ghettos” and quotas in Ashkenazi haredi schools
to continue pursuing their case and collecting evidence, while apologetically
expressing an inability to immediately issue a more concrete order.
petition targeted discrimination as a national phenomenon, focusing on the
alleged lack of a crackdown on it by the Education Ministry, but also
specifically names the municipalities of Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, Modi’in Illit and
Betar Illit as hot spots of discrimination.
The accusation: Some
Ashkenazi haredi schools have a clear policy to keep Sephardi student numbers
under 30 percent, while at the same time actively pushing Sephardim into schools
in “ghettos” where the population is 100% Sephardi.
Leaving the result
for a moment, the debate itself was fascinating. No longer do accusations of
racism make leading headlines in the news. No longer is the debate, at least on
the face of it, between liberals and racists. Today’s debate, for better or for
worse, is far more nuanced and convoluted.
The Education Ministry did not
deny that racism occurs within the school system, but that was not what the
fight was really about. The fight was truly about data, who would have the
burden of collecting it (the state or the petitioners) and how much could
actually be done about the findings.
The state and the municipalities
said, likely being in both parts genuine and evasive, that they could not
identify from lists of names alone who was Sephardi, now that many families pick
more modern names and many are intermarried Ashkenazi-Sephardi
They also argued that it would be far worse to present an
incomplete or possibly imperfect list and data based on that list to the court,
than to not present one at all.
In the heyday of court involvement in
breaking racist barriers, such claims might have been thrown out of court, and
the lawyers themselves found in contempt with fines imposed.
Whether true or not, it is presumed today, including by the
courts, that there is no on-the-books or in-your-face racism by public
institutions anymore, and that the phenomena, where it exists at all, is due to
imperfect individuals acting on their own, who happen to be public
The court tried to press the state on the issue a bit,
demanding that the Jerusalem Municipality’s lawyer describe what, if anything,
he had done “to check” that the discrimination claims were false “other than
telling me that you checked.” The lawyer immediately went pale and silent and
did not respond.
But other than embarrassing the lawyer, the court did
not follow-up with any concrete new demands for what the lawyer or the state and
municipalities needed to do.
No one argued, although some of the parties
may secretly feel, that the Sephardi haredim are wholly inferior, whether
culturally or intellectually.
Rather, all of the talk was about low test
scores, or at another point, the Bnei Brak Municipality’s lawyer cited an
academic study which he said proved that court involvement in trying to solve
discrimination in other societies could not create real change where the problem
was mostly a social, and not a blatant legal phenomenon.
rebuked the lawyer for citing the academic study out of context and ignoring
those parts of it which contradicted his point, but did not go any
So all parties pretty much acknowledge there is still racism,
but everyone except for the petitioners, who were begging the court to impose
strong and concrete oversight and enforcement measures, believes that nothing
can be done about it, other than on a case-by-case basis.
view is right or wrong, and whether the court was right or wrong to encourage
but essentially impose the burden of collecting more data on the alleged racism
“victims” (who, according to their lawyer, are terrified of stepping forward and
crossing the authorities) will continue to be debated.
But it is a fact
that the goalposts, content and direction of the debate have transformed and
look unrecognizable in comparison to the debates of the past.