Think Again: The court comes up empty-handed

All it succeeded in doing was unifying the diverse haredi community by striking at the heart of haredi life – the right of parents to transmit the Torah to their kids, according to their convictions.

By J. ROSENBLUM
June 27, 2010 07:25
Haredi protesters in Jerusalem

haredim protest emmanuel 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

What could the High Court have been hoping to achieve by ordering 43 parents from Emmanuel jailed for contempt of court for sending their children to a hassidic school in Bnei Brak, after it had banned a separate hassidic track within the Beit Ya’acov school in Emmanuel?

All the court succeeded in doing was unifying the diverse haredi community by striking directly at the very heart of haredi life – the right of parents to transmit the Torah to the children, according to their convictions. Even a neighbor who regularly stops me to air his criticisms of the haredi leadership was gung-ho for last week’s Jerusalem protest rally.

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The prayer gathering on Thursday drew a crowd estimated at 100,000 or more, and was the antithesis of a series of demonstrations involving a few hundred demonstrators, primarily drawn from Mea She’arim, over the past year. The broader haredi community looked on the latter with horror when they turned violent. Last week’s gathering, called by a broad cross-section of rabbinical authorities, was, by contrast, completely peaceful.

BESIDES UNIFYING the diverse haredi community, a second unintended consequence of the court’s sentencing of the parents to jail was to reinforce the most conservative elements in the haredi community. A community that feels besieged will draw the wagons tighter. At a time when many in the haredi community seek greater economic integration into the broader society, the court unwittingly gave credence to those who suspect the government of seeking to destroy haredi society, and dealt a setback to those who do not believe that relations between haredim and non-haredim are a zero-sum game.

The court foolishly chose to enter a power struggle it could not win. For haredim raised on stories of Jews throughout history who gave up their lives rather than betray their beliefs, the relatively minor “martyrdom” of two weeks in jail is little deterrent. By sentencing mothers and fathers of large families to jail, Justice Edmond Levy cast himself in the role of Antiochus trying to force each of Hannah’s seven sons to bow down to him.

Sunday’s report that he asked the attorney-general to launch a criminal investigation of haredi MKs for their criticism of the court demonstrates the degree to which he has been maddened by the desire to prevail, no matter how Pyrrhic the victory.

The court’s contempt order was not only strategically counterproductive, but legally dubious. Contempt orders normally apply only to the parties to a case. The parents were not parties to the original suit against the Education Ministry and Hinuch Atzma’i. Nor did the court’s original order direct them to do anything.

So what did the court gain from its efforts? In less than two weeks, the school year ends and the parents will be freed. And the court has already indicated that next year the Slonimer Hassidim will be allowed to establish their own fully independent school in Emmanuel or bus their children to Bnei Brak. Ironically, the ones most hurt by the court’s order are the Sephardi girls currently enrolled in the hassidic track. If no hassidic school is established next year in Emmanuel, they may be forced to return to the general Beit Ya’acov school, where a number of them have complained of being bullied for acting “too Ashkenazi” – i.e. too observant.

FROM THE BEGINNING, the dispute over the two tracks in the Emmanuel Beit Ya’acov – hassidic and general – has been falsely portrayed as a case of blatant ethnic discrimination.

It would not be surprising if there were few Sephardi girls in the hassidic track – there were, after all, few Sephardim in the areas of Eastern Europe from which Slonimer Hassidim hail – but, in fact, over a quarter of the girls in the hassidic track are of Sephardi origin.

Advocate Mordechai Bas, who was appointed by the Education Ministry to evaluate the school, found that while the split of the school was administratively improper, “it was not done with the intention of discriminating against students because of their ethnic background.”

“No parent who wanted or wants to register their daughters in the new school, and who was or is prepared to meet the conditions for doing so, has been refused,” Bas determined.

One might think that the religious restrictions in the hassidic track are too strict. (My daughter, for instance, would not have been accepted.) In the Internet age, however, when one student exposed to pornographic material can affect an entire class, the trend in all haredi schools has been toward greater protections.

And one might support a more inclusive approach, such as that of the Klausenberger Hassidim in Netanya, whose school system includes a very large percentage of Sephardi girls from the orphanage founded by the late Klausenberger Rebbe. But there are dozens of government-supported hassidic girls’ schools in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak made up primarily of students drawn from one hassidic court or another. (Ironically, when other hassidic groups broke away from the general Jerusalem Beit Ya’acov system in 1989, Slonimer Hassidim remained behind with the “Lithuanians” and Sephardim.)

The court has explicitly recognized the right of Beit Ya’acov schools to determine criteria of religious conduct. The only thing different in Emmanuel is that the hassidic track shared the same building with the general track.

The High Court did not question the finding that no parent seeking admission to the hassidic track had been turned away. Rather, Justice Levy summarily concluded that the underrepresentation of Sephardim in the hassidic track demonstrates ipso facto discriminatory intent. By that standard, the High Court is the most discriminatory institution in the country.

Levy is the only one of the 14 permanent members of the current court of Sephardi origin, a consistent pattern since 1948. Former court president Aharon Barak once told a group of journalists that it would be impossible to increase Sephardi representation on the court without diluting its quality. Yet that remark was largely covered up by the media.

AFTER THE court, the most overwhelmingly Ashkenazi institution in the country is broadcast journalism. Yet the media have been quick to hurl the racism label at Slonimer Hassidim. I listened to radio interviews in which the interviewer simply ignored hassidic parents when they cited the significant number of Sephardim in the hassidic track, and returned, without pause, to badgering them about why they discriminated against Sephardim.

The AP report of last week’s demonstrations reflected the Israeli media in willfully ignoring the undisputed fact that no Sephardi parent had been discriminated against: “Parents of European, or Ashkenazi, descent at a girls’ school in the West Bank settlement of Emmanuel don’t want their daughters to study with schoolgirls of Mideast and North African descent, known as Sephardim.”

Last Friday’s front-page headline in The Jerusalem Post described the hassidic track in Emmanuel as a “segregated” school – a characterization about as accurate as the frequent characterization of Israel as an “apartheid state.”

Indeed there are numerous parallels between the recent media treatment of haredim and the world media’s treatment of Israel – something perhaps worth pondering.

Is the haredi community free of all taint of ethnic prejudice? Of course not. There are yeshivot, for instance, where a Sephardi applicant from an impeccable haredi home will need to be better than his Ashkenazi counterpart to be accepted – a point noted critically by numerous haredi commentators last week.

But Emmanuel was not a reflection of that prejudice. And unless one believes, as some do, that it does not matter that Muhammad al-Dura was not shot by Israeli bullets because other Palestinian children may have been, it is an injustice to report the dispute in Emmanuel that way.

The writer is the director of Jewish Media Resources. He has written a regular column in The Jerusalem Post Magazine since 1997, and is the author of eight biographies of modern Jewish leaders.


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