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About two weeks ago, ACRI (the Association for Civil Rights in Israel) sent a letter to the Ministry of Education demanding it put an end to the ethnic quota system used by the Bais Yaakov religious secondary schools (seminaries) for girls. The letter was timely - scores of girls of Mizrahi origin have already been rejected for the coming school year.

Such discrimination against girls from Mizrahi families who apply to the Bais Yaakov seminaries is evident every year as the replies go out to Jerusalem and Bnei Brak.

Dozens of the girls involved, all graduates of Bais Yaakov elementary schools, insist on registering for the exclusive secondary schools that they see as the natural next step - but the schools apparently are determined to perpetuate Ashkenazi hegemony in the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) world.

In Jerusalem, three of the movement's seminaries employ a quota system - Haseminar Hayashan, the oldest, whose principal is Benyamin Scharansky; Haseminar Hehadash, under Rabbi Yeshayahu Lieberman, where in addition to the regular syllabus, secular subjects like architectural drawing and computer studies are taught; and Darkei Rachel, under Rabbi Yehezkel Mendelssohn.

An ACRI investigation found that these three schools, to retain their exclusivity, take pains to see that no more than 30 percent of the incoming class are of Mizrahi origin because they are considered "inferior" candidates. Scores of girls seeking admission, most of them outstanding students, are left out, while less academically able Ashkenazi students are accepted.

Rejected in this manner were about a hundred girls in Jerusalem and another hundred in B'nei Brak this year. That figure is expected to shrink, because Haredi society has developed a lobby system for girls who are rejected, and the lobbying will yield results. Still, every year, about 30 girls don't make it into any of the seminaries, and they are all Mizrahi.

For most of their parents, who have done their best to be assimilated into a constituency ruled by the Ashkenazi elite, this is a devastating blow. Imagine how H. must feel, a man of about 60, whose granddaughter was not accepted at one of the seminaries two years ago, because her grandmother (his wife) is Mizrahi.

Mixed blessing

H., a well-known figure in Jerusalem, with ties to the Hassidic (Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox) community on one side and to the Shas (Sephardi ultra-Orthodox) community on the other, could not accept the fact that, with all his connections, he couldn't help when the crunch came.

Feeling the injustice deeply, he devoted himself night and day to a campaign to persuade one of the three schools to take her; he also worked hard to help another 20 parents in similar circumstances. Pressure brought to bear in high places led eventually to all of the girls' being accepted, aside from his own granddaughter.

H. says that she has found a place for herself in the interim at a less prestigious seminary. The principals cite lack of space. H. says it's a flimsy excuse, because they have not increased the number of classes. He believes that the only answer is for registration to be taken out of the principals' hands and given over to an independent, external (non-Haredi) entity, like the Ministry of Education.

So far no public agency has intervened to put a stop to this practice. About two years ago, a petition on the issue made its way to the Supreme Court, but the petitioners, a group of Mizrahi parents from B'nei Brak, restricted the petition to their own specific case. The high court did not render an opinion in principle with respect to the matter.

"We are acting as citizens who think the Ministry of Education cannot solve the problem of discrimination one instance at a time," says Attorney Neta Amar of ACRI, over whose signature a letter was sent to the ministry. The ministry's general response, she says, was that "it's impossible to prove discrimination here," adding that she "found that shocking, that a government ministry agrees to keep silent about a racist policy."

Her letter demands that the ministry take steps to revoke the license of these seminaries or to oust their principals. The ministry is unlikely to do either. The letter's importance is in exposing the religious and social apparatus behind the quotas. The director of Haredi education at Jerusalem city hall, Benyamin Cohen, explained to Attorney Amar that Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, a leading Torah authority, is considered the heir of Rabbi [Eliezer Menahem] Shach, who originally made the decision that the seminaries would accept at least 30 percent Mizrahi students.

Cohen claims this represents progress, because at one time the quota was 17 percent. Amar claims that setting a quota is "a kind of exercise they do, as if the rabbi is saying, `We'll take this racism thing one step at a time.'"

Cohen asserts that, by way of monitoring the seminaries' compliance with the quota, a committee of three rabbis was set up by Rabbi Eliashiv, consisting of Rabbi Yosef Efrati, Eliashiv's assistant and personal delegate, Rabbi Aryeh Dvir, his spokesman for seminary affairs, and one Rabbi Reichman.

Double checks

The letter says: "The Haredi Education Department at the Jerusalem Municipality supervises and reports to the committee of rabbis on observance of the quota. At the department's request, each principal writes alongside the name of each student at his institution whether she is Sephardi or Ashkenazi." Cohen added that he makes further checks as to the girls' ethnic origin, to be on the safe side.

The application form for Haseminar Hayashan in Jerusalem asks candidates to state their parents' ethnic origins. H., the outraged grandfather, says that last year, parents began falsifying their ethnicity by legally changing their surnames to Ashkenazi names.

"What does it have to do with the parents' ethnicity?" fumes B., a woman from the Lithuanian Jewish community who assists families wishing to have their daughters admitted to the seminaries. "It's hutzpah. Just because she's Sephardic, a girl should suffer? These girls must not be given the feeling that they are outsiders."

In the Haredi community, some people say that admitting too many Mizrahi girls would be a stain on the seminary's good name, because they often have relatives who are not Haredi.

One rabbi unblushingly explained to parents that the seminaries are really doing them a favor, because if Sephardi girls were accepted strictly on their merits, the quota wouldn't be even 15 percent.

The Haredi community views the committee as having been designed to filter the stream of parents coming to Rabbi Eliashiv, who is known to be against discrimination; the committee is not thought to have real influence on what the seminaries do. A story is circulating among the parents that one father, whose daughter was at home for more than a year, sat for three days in front of Rabbi Eliashiv's house and, miraculously enough, his daughter was accepted to the seminary.

A handwritten plea from Rabbi Efrati about the case of H., the grandfather with a Sephardi wife, to the seminary, shows how problematic the question is: "Since it was agreed that, in the neutral [not Hassidic] classrooms, acceptance would match the percentage used at all the seminaries - the reckoning need not take a long time. It is impossible that the ancestral origins of a young woman determine how someone's great-granddaughter be defined. Accordingly, I beg him to appoint someone to meet with the people from Rabbi Benyamin Cohen's [the principal's] office to look into the matter and have an end to this. Please." The letter didn't help.

All rejected

Informally, if one of the seminaries is required to deviate from the agreement, the other principals will accept a similar number of Mizrahi girls at their own institutions. This year, the principals couldn't agree among themselves, and not a single one of the Mizrahi girls waiting impatiently at home for a decision was accepted.

Attorney Amar believes that many people in the Haredi community, including the Ashkenazi sector, find the entire subject an embarrassment. Every parent worries that his daughter's standing in the marriage market will decline if she attends some other seminary, explains B., the woman who assists parents with the process, which is why other seminaries have lost so many good students.

The fact that some Haredi parents are turning to agencies that would once have been inconceivable, like ACRI and the Supreme Court, reflects the beginnings of protest. Even B. confesses that she has simply given up.

"The funding for the seminaries should be cut off. In spite of everything, they receive government funds." She knows that she may be viewed with a jaundiced eye by the seminary principals, and says that perhaps she'll send her daughters somewhere else to study.

As always in the Haredi community, whose members are experts at improvising survival strategies, there's already someone trying to circumvent the problem. A former instructor at one of the seminaries has set up, in her own modest home in a Jerusalem neighborhood, an alternative seminary.

Last year, about twenty girls studied with her, of whom only a few were accepted at regular seminaries. Most paid her by the hour; others, unable to pay, studied for free. Although the teacher has only the highest praise for these students, she seems not to have made up her mind yet about the larger issue. Her own daughters have studied at one of the Bais Yaakov seminaries, which she considers the crown jewel of Haredi life. Her daughters, she emphasizes, don't look at all Sephardi. But, she says, she got them a Mizrahi tutor to bolster their confidence in their ethnic origins.

The Ministry of Education responds that it "rejects outright the allegation that it colludes with any sort of discriminatory policy toward girls of Mizrahi origin wishing to be accepted at recognized schools which are not official (Haredi) or at Haredi seminaries."

In the wake of the ACRI query, Ronit Tirosh, director-general of the ministry, has named two committees to look into allegations of discrimination. One will focus on official Haredi educational institutions, and the other on the seminaries (considered private).

"Every girl who is a student in the Haredi educational system has a place in one of the educational institutions in the city. The education system cannot provide a solution for a girl who decides to punish herself by remaining [at home] without an institutional framework."

Haseminar Hayashan alleges that it does everything possible "to redress past injustices with respect to the admission of girls from all ethnic groups," and that it will continue to conduct itself in the matter "in accordance with the instructions of the gedolei yisroel (ultra-Orthodox authorities) who oversee the seminary."