The sledgehammer approach

In imprisoning dozens of parents, High Court justices have done nothing to improve Sephardi-Ashkenazi relations. Instead of promoting peace, they advanced acrimony.

haredim protest emmanuel 311 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
haredim protest emmanuel 311
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
As I observed the 20,000 haredim who demonstrated in Bnei Brak and 100,000 in Jerusalem on June 17 against the High Court ruling to send several parents of girls from a school in Emmanuel to jail for contempt of court, I ruminated on the Amish sect in Wisconsin and a ruling by the US Supreme Court in 1972.
That year, Jonas Yoder was fined $5 for not following Wisconsin’s compulsory secondary education laws, but the US Supreme Court overturned the decision in Wisconsin vs. Yoder, finding that the benefits of universal education do not trump the First Amendment.
The court affirmed the parents’ right to educate their children. But here the High Court did the opposite: The justices denied this right to parents in Emmanuel, fined them and on Thursday began to imprison them for a fortnight.
The court and the secular media have painted the new hassidic track in the Emmanuel school as the work of modern-day segregationists.
In reality, three of the men now imprisoned for contempt are themselves Sephardim. Advocate Mordechai Bass was commissioned to investigate by the Ministry of Education, and determined that no parent, Ashkenazi or Sephardi, who wanted to register for the hassidic track, and was willing to comply with its stricter religious standards, was turned down.
“If there is no refusal,” he wrote, “where is the discrimination?” This is clearly not a case of racial or ethnic segregation. In a conversation I had with the principal of the Beit Ya’acov school, she explained that it had two tracks: the Slonim Hassidic track with a stringent religious code had roughly 30 percent Sephardi girls, and the more lenient track, which had one quarter Ashkenazim.
Her own son is imprisoned as her granddaughters chose the stricter hassidic track.
When the court intervened some months ago and meddled with the twotrack arrangement, the parents felt the level of religious observance had been compromised and sent their girls elsewhere.
The draconian long arm of the law then forbid them to send their daughters to any other school or even home school them, lest they be held in contempt of court.
LAST WEEK, as the demonstration in Bnei Brak got under way, a line of adorable girls clad in white Shabbat blouses, whose parents soon went to prison, stood next to me. I chatted with them, and observed the close camaraderie among the Sephardi and Ashkenazi girls in the hassidic track.
Their teacher held a collection of “letters to our parents” that the girls had written. They were soon invited to the porch of a first-floor apartment, “front row center” seats from which to watch the rally for their freedom of education.
Familiarity with the history of the small Slonim Hassidic court might have helped avoid this brouhaha.
It would have taken the justices five minutes of Internet browsing to learn that Slonimer Hassidim were among the first true Zionists. Their founding rebbe sent his grandsons to establish a presence in the Land of Israel in 1873 – a decade before what is officially called the First Aliya. A second group came with Rabbi Shalom Noah Barzovsky, the father of the current rebbe, in 1935. Thus Slonim was able to rebuild after most of its hassidim were slaughtered in the Holocaust – and it did so primarily through education.
Slonim educational institutions are open to all who agree to abide by their school by-laws. This information about Slonim Hassidut is accessible to all; it’s not rocket science. With some research the justices could have avoided wielding a sledgehammer on a small and formerly fragile hassidic group. That may account for most of the sympathy other religious Jews felt for the beleaguered parents.
It is an injustice that the name of Slonimer Hassidim has been mistakenly associated with “segregation.” On Thursday, the Sephardi leader Rabbi Moshe Ben-Moshe led a group from Netanya. In explaining to a nonreligious interviewer why he joined the rally, Rabbi Moshe said, “Today the court is interfering in haredi education, and forcing the Emmanuel parents to send their children to a school not of their liking. I am here so that tomorrow the court won’t force you to send your children to a school not of your liking.”
THERE IS no question that prejudice among Ashkenazim toward Sephardim is a problem in Israeli society.
But the severity of it is clearly decreasing and will continue to do so, usually not by government or court fiat. It is manifestly not the major problem in Emmanuel’s small Beit Ya’acov elementary school. If the justices felt compelled to focus on this issue, perhaps they could have started closer to home. There is currently one justice who is identifiably of Middle Eastern descent, out of 17 on the Supreme Court. Since 1948, there have been dozens of Ashkenazi justices – and some four Sephardim.
The justices did not choose one of the many alternative ways to skin this delicate cat. .
Rabbi Eliahu Biton, one of the several Sephardi fathers from Emmanuel, whose daughter Dassy was in the hassidic track of the school, addressed the demonstration in Bnei Brak before going to prison. He repeated what his young son had said accusingly to Dassy when he had complained to his sister, “It’s all your fault, Dassy, that Daddy is going to prison.”
Biton said that he smiled and corrected the boy. “It’s not Dassy’s fault.
It’s her honor and privilege to be the reason I am going to prison.”

The writer has engineering degrees from Stanford University and the Technion, and currently works as a translator of rabbinic Holocaust memoirs. Rabbi Ya’acov Menken, director of Project Genesis, contributed to this op-ed.