High Court: Haredi school must end discrimination

Girls' school in Emmanuel had enacted policy of separation between Sephardi and Ashkenazi students.

haredi girls backs 298.8 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
haredi girls backs 298.8
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The High Court of Justice castigated a haredi girls' school in Emmanuel on Thursday for imposing discriminatory segregation between its Ashkenazi and Sephardi students. Justices Edmond Levy, Edna Arbel and Hanan Meltzer warned that unless the Independent Educational Stream (hinuch atzma'i), which is directly responsible for the school, removes every "trace, whether formal or substantive, of expressions of discrimination," it would order the Education Ministry "to take every legal measure, including withdrawing the school's permit and stopping its funding, to correct the situation." The petition was filed by an organization called Noar Kahalacha (halachic youth), which was represented by Aviad Hacohen, the dean of the Sha'arei Mishpat College of Law. "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," wrote Levy. "This assertion is based first of all on a look at the results, which show that in fact there were two separate spaces within the school. These separate spaces, which were originally meant to contain two completely separate schools, and later two streams, each had its own separate population. This was not coincidental and proves, like a thousand witnesses, the discriminatory aims of those who initiated the separation." One of the rules of the new school in the Samaria settlement stated that studies were to be conducted with an Ashkenazi accent. Parents were instructed to make sure the girls prayed in this accent at home. The spiritual authority for the girls would be a hassidic rabbi. The parents had to promise that they would not impose the teachings of their own spiritual mentor if they clashed with the one at school. The girls could only have friends outside school from homes that accorded with the "educational spirit" of the school. In one of the hearings held in court on the petition, Levy, a Sephardi Jew, reacted angrily to the school's first rule by saying, "Even if they whipped me 100 times, I would not be able to speak with an Ashkenazi accent." Although there has been tension between the Ashkenazi and Sephardi communities in Emmanuel for many years, the story of the split in the girls' high school began at the end of the 2007 school year, when a group of Ashkenazi parents decided to make physical and curricular changes in the school. "In essence," wrote Levy, "a new school was established alongside the existing one." A plaster wall was erected to divide the school building in two, each side had its own separate entrance, the playground was divided into two by burlap cloth and a fence, and the teachers' room was also divided in two. There were also claims that the timetable had been changed so that the children of the two schools would not play outside at the same time, and the school uniforms had been changed to differentiate between the students of each institution. Some of the parents complained to the Education Ministry about the division and later petitioned the High Court of Justice. As a result of the initial complaints, ministry director-general Shlomit Amichai ordered the Independent Education Stream to cancel the separation and remove the divisions. Amichai also appointed a lawyer, Mordechai Bass, to look into the background of the events at the school. Among other things, he found that the proportion of Ashkenazi girls in the original school had been 73 percent while in the new school it was 23%. He also found that the heads of the new school would not refuse to accept anyone from the old school who was willing to accept its rules. On these grounds, he concluded that it was not discriminatory. On the other hand, he also determined that the Independent Educational Stream had created two completely separate schools in violation of the law and Education Ministry regulations. The Education Ministry demanded some changes in the discriminatory rules adopted by the school. The Independent Educational Stream agreed to remove the rule on speaking with an Ashkenazi accent and another rule imposing an unusually strict dress code. However, Amichai also found that her orders to remove the physical separation barriers in the school had been ignored. According to attorney Aviad Hacohen, the school removed the plaster wall inside the building after one-and-a-half years and threats from the High Court during the hearings that preceded Thursday's decision. The burlap cover that separated the girls from the two streams, and was meant to prevent them from seeing each other, was also removed. However, there is still a physical barrier in the courtyard, there are still separate entrances for the children of each "stream," and until the end of the year, the children wore different school uniforms. Hacohen welcomed the "important High Court decision which constitutes a landmark in the ongoing struggle to eradicate discrimination in the education system in general and the haredi education system in particular. The decision stresses the fact that even a multicultural society cannot be absolved, in the name of the uniqueness of the haredi community, of the burden of the principle of equality and that it is the duty of the Education Ministry to supervise and make certain that this principle is observed in fact as well as in theory."