What could the Israeli Supreme Court have been hoping to achieve by ordering 43 parents from Emmanuel jailed for contempt of court for sending their children to a chassidic school in Bnei Brak, after the Court banned a separate chassidic track within the Bais Yaakov in Emmanuel?
All the Court succeeded in doing was unifying the diverse charedi community by striking directly at the very heard of charedi life – the right of parents to transmit the Torah to the children, according to their convictions. Even a neighbor who regularly stops me to air his criticisms of the charedi community and leadership was gung-ho for last week's Jerusalem protest rally.
The prayer gathering drew a crowd estimated at 100,000 or more, and was the antithesis of a series of demonstrations involving a few hundred demonstrators, primarily drawn from Meah Shearim, over the past year. The broader charedi community looked on the latter with horror when they turned violent. Last week's gathering, called by a broad cross-section of rabbinical authorities, was, by contrast, completely peaceful.
Besides unifying the diverse, and often fractious, charedi community, a second unintended consequence of the Court's sentencing of the parents to jail was to reinforce the most conservative elements in the charedi community. A community that feels besieged will draw the wagons tighter. At a time when many in the charedi community seek greater economic integration into the broader Israeli society, the Court unwittingly gave credence to those who suspect the government of seeking to destroy charedi society, and dealt a setback to those who do not believe that relations between the charedi and non-charedi sectors are a zero-sum game.
The Court foolishly chose to enter a power struggle it could not win. For charedim raised on stories of Jews throughout history who gave up their lives rather than betray their beliefs, the relatively minor "martyrdom" of two weeks in jail is little deterrent. By sentencing mothers and fathers of large families to jail, Judge Edmond Levy cast himself in the role of Antiochus trying to force each of Channah's seven sons to bow down to him.
Sunday's report that he asked the Attorney-General to launch a criminal investigation of charedi MK's for their criticism of the Court demonstrates the degree to which he has been maddened by the desire to prevail, no matter how pyrrhic the victory.
The Court's contempt order was not only strategically counter-productive, but legally dubious. Contempt orders normally apply only to the parties to a case. The parents were not parties to the original suit against the Education Ministry and Chinuch Atzmai. Nor did the Court's original order direct them to do anything.
So what did the Court gain from its efforts? In less than two weeks, the school year ends and the parents will be freed. And the Court has already indicated that next year the Slonimer chassidim will be allowed to establish their own fully independent school in Emmanuel or bus their children to Bnei Brak. Ironically, the ones most hurt by the Court's order are the Sephardi girls currently enrolled in the chassidic track. If no chassidic school is established next year in Emmanuel, they may be forced to return to the general Bais Yaakov school, where a number of them have complained of being bullied for acting "too Ashkenazi" – i.e., too observant.
FROM THE BEGINNING, the dispute over the two tracks in the Emmanuel Bais Yaakov – chassidic and general – has been falsely portrayed as a case of blatant ethnic discrimination.
It would not be surprising if there were few Sephardi girls in the chassidic track – there were, after all, few Sephardim in the areas of Eastern Europe from which Slonimer chassidim hail – but, in fact, over a quarter of the girls in the chassidic track are of Sephardi origin.
Advocate Mordechai Bas, who was appointed by the Education Ministry to evaluate the school, found that while the split of the school was administratively improper, "it was not done with the intention of discriminating against students because of their ethnic background." "No parent who wanted or wants to register their daughters in the new school, and who was or is prepared to meet the conditions for doing so, has been refused," Bas determined.
One might think that the religious restrictions in the chassidic track are too strict. (My daughter, for instance, would not have been accepted.) In the age of Internet, however, when one student exposed to pornographic material can affect an entire class, the trend in all charedi schools has been towards greater protections.
And one might support a more inclusive approach, such as that of the Klausenberger chassidim in Netanya, whose school system includes a very large percentage of Sephardi girls from the orphanage founded by the late Klausenberger Rebbe. But there are dozens of government-supported chassidic girls schools Jerusalem and Bnei Brak made up primarily of students drawn from one chassidic court or another. (Ironically, when other chassidic groups broke away from the general Jerusalem Bais Yaakov system in 1989, Slonimer chassidim remained behind with the "Lithuanians" and Sephardim.) The Court has explicitly recognized the right of Bais Yaakov schools to determine criterion of religious conduct. The only thing different in Emmanuel is that the chassidic track shared the same building with the general track.
The Supreme Court did not question the finding that no parent seeking admission to the chassidic track had been turned away. Rather Justice Levy summarily concluded that the under-representation of Sephardim in the chassidic track demonstrates ipso facto discriminatory intent. By that standard, the Israeli Supreme Court is the most discriminatory institution in Israel.
Justice Levy is the only one of the fourteen permanent members of the current Court of Sephardi origin, a consistent pattern since 1948. Former Court President Aharon Barak once told a group of journalists that it would be impossible to increase Sephardi representation on the Court without diluting its quality. Yet that remark was largely covered up by the media.
After the Court, the most overwhelmingly Ashkenazi institution in Israel is broadcast journalism. Yet the media has been quick to hurl the racism label at Slonimer chassidim. I listened to radio interviews, in which the interviewer simply ignored chassidic parents when they cited the significant number of Sephardim in the chassidic track, and returned, without pause, to badgering them about why they discriminated against Sephardim.
The AP report of last week's demonstrations reflected the Israeli media in willfully ignoring the undisputed fact that no Sephardi parent had been discriminated against: "Parents of European, or Ashkenazi, descent at a girls' school in the West Bank settlement of Emmanuel, don't want their daughters to study with schoolgirls of Mideast and North African descent, known as Sephardim."
Last Friday's front-page headline in the Jerusalem Post described to the Hassidic track in Emmanuel as a "segregated" school – a characterization about as accurate as the frequent characterization of Israel as an "apartheid state." Indeed there are numerous parallels between the recent media treatment of charedim and the world media's treatment of Israel – something perhaps worth pondering.
Is the charedi community free of all taint of ethnic prejudice? Of course not. There are yeshivos, for instance, where a Sephardi applicant from an impeccable charedi home will need to be better than his Ashkenazi counterpart to be accepted -- a point noted critically by numerous haredi commentators last week.
But Emmanuel was not a reflection of that prejudice. And unless one believes, for instance, that it does not matter that Mohammed Al-Dura was not shot by Israeli bullets because other Palestinian children may have been, it is an injustice to report the dispute in Emmanuel that way.