Putting things into perspective

This is a guest post from Davka

Last week some 100,000 orthodox Jews paraded through the streets of Jerusalem in support of parents wishing to set up a breakaway ‘Ashkenazi’ ultra-orthodox school in the town of Emmanuel – one of the largest demonstrations ever held in Israel.

Like much of the liberal press in Israel and abroad, Rachel Shabi’s Comment is Free piece has spun the Emmanuel affair as an example of ‘discrimination on grounds of skin colour’. While there is never any justification for racism, It is much more complex than that. Some 25 parents who are being ordered to jail for contempt of court are themselves Sephardi, indicating that the affair has more to do with fanatical religious observance than racism.

The tired old charge that this is another example of the ‘Ashkenazi’ establishment ‘s institutionalised discrmination against disadvantaged Sephardim no longer sticks: the Israeli establishment has long ceased to be Ashkenazi, and ethnic differences, with intermarriage running at 25 percent, are increasingly blurred. Jews from Arab and Muslim countries are not some marginalised minority. They account for fifty percent of the population. Sephardim or Mizrahim are broadly represented, have achieved high office in government and have held every ministerial post except prime minister. Neither does the accusation that Israel is hypocritically doing nothing to combat discrimination hold water: plenty of NGOS are working in Israel to bridge the economic and educational gap.

Let’s get some sense of perspective: the Emmanuel affair is a controversy that concerns an ultra-ultra-orthodox sect, the Slonim Hassidim. It affects the extreme ultra-orthodox fringe of Israeli society, one of the few sectors where Ashkenazi-Sephardi differences still matter. It is irrelevant to the vast majority of Israelis.

Cultural differences seem to be the main factor here – while more traditionally observant than Ashkenazim, Sephardim have always been more open to outside influences, while ultra-orthodox Ashkenazim have tended to look inward and cut themselves off from the outside world.

Maimonides, the great medieval rabbi and philosopher, was also physician to Saladdin. This sort of typical Sephardi synthesis of the spiritual and the worldly never existed in the shtetls of eastern Europe. Had Maimonides been alive today, he might well have used the internet and watched TV.

In the Emmanuel case, the ultra-orthodox Ashkenazi parents’ main gripe seems to be that the Sephardi girls, by and large, are not observant enough for their standards. It may all boil down to something as basic as whether the girls are being corrupted by watching TV at home, or whether they keep their blouses buttoned up to the top.

However, the intervention of the Israeli courts has polarised opinion, and politicised an issue that should and could have been settled well away from the glare of international publicity. They are right to insist that a state-funded school must abide by non-discriminatory admissions criteria. But the Israeli Supreme Court should be criticised for handing down draconian jail sentences and insisting on their enforcement. Their heavy-handed approach has only created martyrs. It has forced a confrontation between ‘religious’ and ‘secular’. No one doubts that this serious social faultline in Israeli society needs urgent attention. The ultra-orthodox are one of the fastest growing sectors, but are resented by secular Israelis for not serving in the army or holding down productive jobs.

The very root of the problem, highlighted by the Emmanuel affair, is this: the Sephardi orthodox simply do not have an adequate educational infrastructure of their own. Although the religious Sephardi party Shas has improved matters, Sephardim, driven out from Arab countries in the last 50 years, are still suffering the effects of the destruction of their orthodox heritage. That’s why many ultra-orthodox Sephardim have adopted Yiddish and Ashkenazi orthodox customs – they have become ‘lithuanianised’, as the academic Shmuel Trigano puts it. Religious Sephardim need to be empowered to teach their own Sephardi rich culture and brand of orthodoxy.

The Slonim Hassidim should be encouraged to set up their own private school. This school would have every right to its own admissions policy, but not at the Israeli taxpayer’s expense. This is broadly the line taken by the Sephardi orthodox party Shas . As one secular professor has pointed out, nobody objected to Shas setting up its own Sephardi-only schools: it’s positive discrimination, not racism.

60 replies »

  1. MindThePig

    MindThePig to CZ: “I’m sorry that you don’t want to address the broader important issues here.”

    That’s an odd attitude coming from one who has spent days holding to an inflexible, bigoted, anti-Semitic line in every last detail.

    But there are indeed broader issues:

    The Supreme Court has betrayed fundamental human principles, including both freedom of religion and freedom of speech. Will it have the decency to resign?

    Is the Supreme Court integrated? Or is it bastion of white chiloni Ashkenazi leftists? How many haredim has it? How many Mizrahim? How many from the political right? How many Mizrahi haredim?

    Does the Israeli government need restructuring? Is a Supreme Court, subject to no constitutional or electoral oversight, a fundamentally anti-democratic institution? How then should the Israeli Supreme Court be revised?

    Generally speaking, the chiloni leftist Ashkenazim controlling Israel have made a habit of persecuting ultra-orthodox (both Ashkenazi and Mizrahi). Should Aguda or Shas take the Israeli government before the ICC? before the UNHRC? before the same British courts which claim universal jurisdiction?

    Finally, the broadest, most serious issue of all is this:
    “Supreme Court Critics Under Investigation: Members of Knesset, rabbis and journalists who criticized the Supreme Court over the Emanuel affair will face investigation this week, and may even face criminal charges.”

    In terms of both of Israel’s democracy and its obligation to protect practising Jews, it looks very much like the cure (suppression of freedom of speech and freedom of religion) is much worse than the disease (alleged discrimination against a handful of students in a tiny ultra-orthodox venue).

    The ability to invoke criminal law (!) against one’s critics is a deep, profound, broad, horrific betrayal of freedom of expression, of democratic government, and of transparency of government. The broadest issues are thus:
    – when will such a totalitarian law be abrogated or repealed?
    – when will its opposite – guarantee of freedom of expression and the right to criticise government – be incorporated into the Basic Laws?
    – when will the Supreme Court which invoked such an extreme, totalitarian law be forced to resign?

  2. Serendipity

    “Does anyone know how I can write to John Voight, to thank him?”

    Voight said “Your ( Obama’s ) destruction of this country may never be remedied”…( he is talking about Arizona ).. What sort of simpleton is he …does he think this is a film script.. and why would you embarrass yourself supporting this clumsy and juvenile verbiage???…any port in a storm ? Are you that desperate for allies?

  3. For all his welcome support of Israel, Jon Voight did not do himself any favors with this letter. If you’re going to write the U.S. President and make that letter public it seems to me that you run it by a few people first. They would have told him to change the tone a bit, not bring Arizona into the discussion, and not come off sounding like an embittered crank. Look, I disagree with how Obama has dealt with Israel, but writing a letter like that takes the focus from Obama and puts it squarely on Voight. Not Jon’s best effort.

  4. Judy

    zharya — whether the Slonim are zionist or anti zionist is irrelevant to this issue.

    No it’s not Judy.

    It deserves answer.

    The man who originally turned to the courts is a Sepharidi who sees the schools admission policy as discrimination based on birth. He is a Sepharadi Haredi. The Supreme court sees this as discrimination based on family background. Not on the ‘cultural behavior’ of this or that family.

    Shass is loudly silent. Although Baba Yussuf has said that people who use the secular courts will ‘pay for it’ in ‘the afterlife’. So much for Israeli democracy which he so happly ‘milks’ to finance his ‘educational system’ and other projects.

  5. MizrahiAshkenazi:

    “That’s an odd attitude coming from one who has spent days holding to an inflexible, bigoted, anti-Semitic line in every last detail.”

    You must be confusing me with the other MindTheCrap that writes on CiF.

  6. It’s very simple really. Take away state funding from these “schools” and get them to fund themselves.

  7. Take away state funding from these “schools” and get them to fund themselves.

    Actually, the Slonim did that. They took their children out of the state school in order to start their own private school. The Supreme Court ordered them to send their children back to the original school; they refused, so the Supreme Court jailed them.

  8. Free the Slonim

    Actually, the Slonim did that. They took their children out of the state school in order to start their own private school. The Supreme Court ordered them to send their children back to the original school; they refused, so the Supreme Court jailed them.

    Could you expand on that. I seem to remember one of the sides saying that all state money should be withdrawn from the school in question but your ….. opinion indicates that the school in Emanuel is not getting any state funding anyway.

    Someone is lying.

    Please explain to us here so that we can know where the truth lies.