Corridors of Power in Jerusalem: Separate and not equal

At the start of every school year, a number of girls of Sephardi origin in the haredi sector remain at home because no haredi seminary will agree to accept them.

Mayor Nir Barkat (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Mayor Nir Barkat
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
The same rigmarole has been going on for more than two decades and nothing has changed, despite several attempts to put an end to the shameful situation. At the beginning of every school year, a number of girls of Sephardi origin in the haredi sector remain at home, hurt and ashamed because no haredi seminary will agree to accept them – because they are not Ashkenazi.
That most of these seminaries are recognized by the state and are therefore partly funded by public monies doesn’t seem to bother the principals of these schools.
But more outrageous is that neither the Education Department at Safra Square nor the representatives of this sector (Sephardi girls identify mostly with Shas) have been able to remedy this.
The Education portfolio at the municipality has been in the hands of Mayor Nir Barkat since he first took office in 2008. He made it clear from the start that education was a key issue for him and he would supervise it personally. Since there is also a separate education department for the haredi sector (one of the inglorious legacies of mayor Ehud Olmert, who created this separate department to give “jobs” to his new allies, United Torah Judaism), there is a director of the haredi education department administration and holder of this portfolio – Deputy Mayor Zvika Cohen (Shas).
One reason for granting Cohen the portfolio was the hope that with such authority in his hands, the situation of Sephardi girls being denied their right to be educated in a haredi seminary would be rectified in Jerusalem, but it is far from the reality. According to the municipality, there are 30 girls in the capital who have not been accepted into the haredi seminaries because they are Sephardi.
Readers may want to know what reasons are given for refusing to accept these girls. Well, generally, no explanation at all is given. The girls register according to the rules of the Education Department at the appointed time and present very high marks. But usually just a few days before the school year starts, their parents receive a brief letter, with no details, notifying them that their daughters were found to be “not suitable” for the seminary in question. And that’s it.
By then, not only it is too late for them to find an alternative institution, but there are no such alternative institutions in the haredi sector.
And the girls remain at home, without access to the education they deserve, while the Education Ministry and the municipal education department do next to nothing.
Asked if Barkat has considered curtailing the funding of these seminaries, at least until the principals change their mind, a municipality spokesman said, “The Jerusalem Municipality had made it clear to the principals that discrimination is unacceptable and that the municipality will make every effort to see that every girl studies in the education institution that fits her. The municipality will continue to monitor the placement of these girls according to the law. The municipality will not hesitate to take severe action against those institutions that will not do so, including freezing funding for development and construction.”
That is a very interesting answer, yet the principals continue to refuse to accept the Sephardi girls, public money continues to flow to these seminaries, the Shas representative (currently abroad and thus unable to respond) is still holding the portfolio but is not doing the job he was assigned to do, and some 30 Sephardi girls are still being prevented from attending seminary.
What really matters is that the Jerusalem city council has two holders of the Education portfolio, there are three separate education departments (one for the Arab sector as well), and the municipality has declared that education in general is its most important concern.