Legal debates about racism in Israel 2013

Petitioners decry national phenomenon ‘ghettos,’ quotas for Sephardi haredim in Ashkenazi haredi schools.

Haredi men dance on Simhat Torah 370 (photo credit: REUTERS/Baz Ratner)
Haredi men dance on Simhat Torah 370
(photo credit: REUTERS/Baz Ratner)
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.
The 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.
The 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 couples.
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.
But times have changed.
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 servants.
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.
The court 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 farther.
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.
Whether this 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.