My Word: A black day for education

What were girls in Emmanuel learning at school, at home? The answer can make you uncomfortable.

haredim protest emmanuel 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
haredim protest emmanuel 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
What did you learn in school today?” goes the proverbial question parents everywhere ask their children. In the case of the girls who attend the now (in)famous Beit Ya’acov school in Emmanuel, the answer can make you feel very uncomfortable. And what they’re learning at home is even worse.
As the press has been discussing for weeks, Ashkenazi families, most of them members of the Slonim Hassidic movement, decided to ignore the High Court ruling that they integrate Sephardi girls into their elementary school, and chose instead to rally and accompany the fathers to jail in what was quickly dubbed as “the mother of all protests.”
Stepping up the rhetoric as they climbed ever higher up a shaky metaphorical tree, the community’s leaders compared the High Court’s decision that the girls study together to everything from the evil decrees issued by of Antiochus the Greek against the Jews in Temple times, to forced conversions during the Spanish Inquisition, czarist oppression and even – without any sign of shame – to Nazi anti-Semitism.
What happened to the principle of darkei no’am, that the ways of the Torah are the ways of peace? Whatever they teach in that school, it is obviously not “Ve’ahavta lere’acha kamocha” “Love thy neighbor as thyself.” And whatever they’re learning at home, it is not “Dina de malchuta dina,” “The law of the land is the law.”
The school did comply with the court order to remove a wall separating the Ashkenazi and Sephardi sections of the school and playground, but the Slonim parents as a result refused to send their daughters back to the classroom. Exactly what they thought would happen to their children’s moral well-being in the two remaining weeks of school ahead of the summer vacation is not clear.
The parents claim the segregation is on religious, not ethnic, grounds because the Sephardi girls, many of them from newly religious families, do not have the same standards. Some of the Sephardi girls even have television sets and computers at home, complained Slonim spokesmen. Somehow I doubt these girls are going to come to school and try to persuade their Ashkenazi classmates to vote for their favorites in Kochav Nolad.
It strikes me that the obvious fear displayed by the 100,000-strong protesting parents shows a basic lack of trust in the education they are providing, both in the classroom and out of it. If you truly believe in what you teach and the way you live, you should have faith that your offspring will believe in it too. Instead of discussing television programs and Internet forums at school – where it would be deemed unacceptable if not a mortal sin – the Sephardi girls are more likely to go home and push their parents to change their lifestyle.
The Slonim parents have a right to protect their way of life. What they can’t do is insist on receiving state funding for segregation.
IT’S PROBABLY hard to realize what a snob you are until you have to decide where to buy a house and what school to send your children to. How many socialists have ended up paying for a private education? The Emmanuel case is not about pure snobbery; the parents who would rather sit in jail than let their precious daughters study with someone of a different religious background are concerned with something that lies at the absolute core of their existence. But exactly what religion they are following beats me.
They have also fallen victim to their own blind faith in what their religious leaders tell them. Peer pressure is not confined to the social world of schoolchildren. The “what will the neighbors say” phenomenon is always larger wherever the size of a community is smaller. In a closed community, it bounces off all the walls, unable to escape.
Part of the problem in the Emmanuel case is the terrible silence of Shas, the movement and political party set up specifically “to restore the crown of Sephardi Jewry to its former glory,” as the party’s first electoral campaign stressed in 1982. Shas leaders are well known for sending their own children to the more prestigious Ashkenazi schools.
If their silence was disturbing, the noise created by United Torah Judaism’s Deputy Education Minister Meir Porush was frightening. Porush set up a protest tent outside the prison where the fathers were being held for contempt of court and went as far as holding the weekly faction meeting there instead of in the Knesset.
That he still holds the position of deputy education minister as I write these lines does not bode well for schools and educational standards in any sector.
I suspect that while the mass demonstrations were sparked by true religious fervor, they were fueled by local political and sectoral interests, and by the very isolation which the Slonim are set on maintaining. It is even easier to rally the Slonim menfolk to battle over the school issue than it is to get the average male outside the community to express support for a favorite sports team.
“The others,” indeed, are not entirely blameless.
While I oppose gender-segregated buses, for example, it’s not difficult to see why the haredim would find them more comfortable. You don’t have to be a religious fanatic to wonder exactly where you’re meant to look when the young woman squeezed next to you is showing so much skin she might be considered under-dressed at a beach party. And listening to some of the language used by youths – speaking on their mobile phones or simply yelling one to another – makes you wonder whether modern Hebrew hasn’t grown too creative.
Still, turning modesty into the cornerstone of religion is destructive. And separating Ashkenazim from Sephardim is not Jewish. I don’t know about the best of families, but fortunately it’s not acceptable in mine.
Ultimately, in the Emmanuel case, you have to feel sorry for the schoolgirls, all of them. The ones whose parents have convinced them that they are morally frail, unable to think for themselves and surrounded by an omnipresent threat intent on their corruption.
And the Sephardi girls who received the message at the most formative stage of their lives that they are second-best.
This week marks the start of the Three Weeks, the period leading up to Tisha Be’av, the Hebrew date on which both the First and Second Temples were destroyed. The Second Temple, traditional sources maintain, fell because of “sinat hinam,” “baseless hatred” among the Jews.
Let that be a lesson to us all.
The writer is editor of The International Jerusalem Post.