An Israeli classroom
An Israeli classroom Photo by Moti Milrod
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This article is part of a special edition of Haaretz, to mark Israel's book week.

1At noontime the small commercial center in Immanuel is deserted. Most of the empty shops bear "For Sale" signs. All that remain are food stores, the post office, the National Insurance office and one dusty toy shop. There is also a dusty "For Sale" sign on the closed Mizrahi Bank.

"The bank fled long ago," says Eli Beni, a resident, with a bitter smile.

"And you?" I have the temerity to ask.

"I have nowhere to go," he replies.

 

2Immanuel was supposed to have been the first modern ultra-Orthodox town. When the cornerstone was laid in 1981, the initiators spoke of a splendid and sophisticated town with spacious apartments, parks, gardens, a train and even regular helicopter transportation to the big city. All of Bnai Brak was plastered with posters: "Yankel, have you been to Immanuel already?" "Zalman, have you been to Immanuel already?" All the air throbbed with expectancy.

The height was the ostentatious opening performance by Hasidic star singer Mordechai Ben David before 50,000 people, including Ariel Sharon and the most important religious leaders.

The fall was swift. Two years after its establishment, Immanuel collapsed amid its construction company's financial troubles.

"Everything you see in Immanuel today was built during those two years. Since then, nothing," Local Council Head Ezra Gershi would explain to me later. "The lessons of this catastrophe are now being studied in academia."

If that were not enough, the intifada broke out and the town, which is located in the depths of Samaria, quickly emptied of its inhabitants. In an attempt to explain the failure of the promising town, people started recalling Rabbi Schach, who did not have a favorable view of settlement beyond the Green Line. When a town tries to find an explanation for what is happening in a rabbi's predispositions, it is never a good sign.

 

3"When I took up the position a year and a half ago," relates local council head Ezra Gershi, "I said I wanted to put Immanuel on the map. Today I say - I have succeeded."

He sits in his modest office, his deputy Efraim Malov beside him. Malov sits quietly throughout the conversation, but whenever he fears Gershi is about to get in trouble by saying something political, he leaps from his chair and suggests Gershi think twice.

"We work together," they relate. "Usually, the losing candidate goes home but for the sake of the town, the two of us decided to join forces, you see. Here's a Sephardi and an Ashkenazi in Immanuel, together, and there isn't any problem."

"Before me there was an Ashkenazi mayor, and before him a Sephardi, and the one before him - an Ashkenazi again," smiles Gershi.

"So why did everything explode in Immanuel?" I ask.

"Because this is a small place," explains Gershi, "and the separation was done here in an aggressive way."

 

4The schoolyard of the Beit Yaakov school at issue is quiet. The bearded guard casts interested looks at me and at Tomer the photographer - not the usual suspicion, but mixed with something additional.

We are in Immanuel on a significant day, the first day the 74 Ashkenazi girls of the Hasidic track who refused to accept the High Court of Justice ruling and study with the other Sephardi girls were to go to Bnai Brak to attend a different school.

"Nu, have the Ashkenazi girls shown up for school today?" Tomer asks a young woman pushing a stroller. The woman surprises us with a sharp monologue.

"It's better they don't show up!" she starts. "We don't need any favors from them - aren't we religious like they are? We don't have Internet at home either, or television." She keeps talking until another man comes along.

He surprises us. "Even though I am a Mizrahi," he acknowledges straightaway, "I am sending my boys to an Ashkenazi talmud Torah and when my daughter is old enough she will go to the Ashkenazi Beit Yaakov."

The woman regards him like a traitor.

"The separation isn't a matter of racism," he continues. "There are families that are newly observant and it can't be helped, they aren't religious enough yet and they can't study in the Hasidic track. And usually, the newly religious girls are from a family of Mizrahi origin, that's all. There isn't a race issue here but rather a religious issue."

He makes certain I quote him exactly, says he isn't interested in giving his name, suggests I use the pseudonym "Pini" and adds, "And I'm fed up that they are hitching a ride on this in the media. It has nothing to do with racism."

"Another Uncle Tom making himself Ashkenazi," Tomer whispers to me.

Down the street we meet Sarah, who lives next to the school. "We didn't know about anything," she relates, "but since then all our relatives have been calling, 'What's happening with you?' 'What's going on there?' That's the only reason I know about the whole mess."

Nu, the council head's vision has been realized. Immanuel is on the map.

 

5Racism does indeed have deep roots in ultra-Orthodox society, but it may not be the (only ) matter at hand here. From another angle, it could be the Slonim Hasids' desire that their daughters receive the purist education imaginable, but what about the pure education for the other girls? Where is the famous mutual responsibility? It doesn't exist.

In elitist ultra-Orthodox institutions, there will be students of Mizrahi origin but they will be from scrupulously selected families (yes, 'Pini,' your family too ).

The Ashkenazi students will not be scrutinized in that way; they will not be required to prove their ultra-Orthodoxy.

And an ultra-Orthodox acquaintance already has told me: "What is a racist's punishment? That there is a bigger racist than he is.

Because maybe it's fine and dandy that the Ashkenazis in Immanuel are lording it over the Sephardis, in that remote locale, but I want to see the Ashkenazi from Bnai Brak who is going to marry a girl from Immanuel."

Like the Passover song goes, Had gadya, had gadya - one kid, one kid.

 

The writer's book "Book of Creation" was published by Kinneret Zmora-Bitan.