The recent Israeli High Court ruling against parents of students in the Israeli town of Emmanuel and the ensuing massive haredi demonstration on the parents’ behalf present an opportunity to either jump to conclusions or objectively evaluate the facts. Several Sephardi parents -- Israelis of North African and Middle-Eastern backgrounds -- in the town brought a lawsuit aimed at preventing other parents of students who had been studying in the local Beit Yaakov girls’ school from maintaining a new school the latter group had established. The court ruled that the new school was born of illegal ethnic discrimination and, later, that the “new school” parents’ subsequent second choice – to send their daughters to a school in another city -- was also forbidden them. The court fined those parents for each day they refused to comply with its order to return their children to the Emmanuel Beit Yaakov, threatened them with prison and then made good on the threat. On June 17, the parents, wearing their Sabbath clothes, were held aloft and escorted to the prison by a peaceful crowd of tens of thousands, singing and dancing, in a demonstration of support for the soon-to-be prisoners. What gives here? Well there are two versions. First, the one presented by most media: Racial prejudice lay at the root of the parents’ desire for a separate school for their children and their refusal to abide by the court ruling. The large number of supporters who turned out on their behalf reflected a general haredi Ashkenazic disdain for the “segregation” of Sephardim. Version two: The jailed parents sought only to preserve the religious standards the Emmanuel school had maintained for many years. Changing demographics over the years in Emmanuel brought an influx of families with less stringent standards of Jewish observance, dress and insularity (including things like use of the internet and personal messaging, which are shunned by many haredim for religious reasons) than the original residents of the town. In the age of Internet, when one student exposed to pornographic material can affect an entire class, the trend in all charedi schools has been towards greater protections. Some of the long-time residents with school-age children saw a need for two different educational institutions to service Emmanuel’s girls. That most of the new families happened to be of Sephardi heritage played no role at all in that decision. The first version was endorsed by Israel’s High Court, which pronounced that the new school evidenced prejudice and ordered the parents who had founded it to return their children to the Emmanuel Beit Yaakov. Those parents, however, insisted, and insist, that the court finding was wrong, that their choice was a matter of religious conscience. They refused to be coerced to send their children to a school of the court’s choice and readily went to jail for their civil disobedience. The larger haredi community, wary of the High Court in the best of circumstances and seeing it as having ignored clear facts in this case, rallied to the parents’ side. Which version reflects the truth? Discrimination against Sephardim exists in Israeli society, and it must be fought wherever it appears. But that is not the case in Emmanuel. There is no doubt that discrimination against Sephardim exists in Israeli society, and that it is pernicious and must be fought wherever it appears. The question about the Emmanuel issue, though, is whether such discrimination -- or, rather, parents’ concerns for the tenor of their children’s educations -- motivated the establishment of the new school. Several simple facts, although oddly absent from most news reports, seem to point in one direction: More than a quarter of the girls who had been enrolled in the new school were… Sephardim. And there were Ashkenazi girls who remained in the original Beit Yaakov too. What is more, not one applicant to the new school was rejected. Any girl willing to abide by the school’s standards was welcomed, regardless of her ethnic background. The “segregation,” it seems, consisted of nothing more than two schools offering two different sets of religious standards. The High Court emperor’s nakedness may have been most succinctly voiced by one of the parents who went to jail, as he was held aloft by the crowd and a reporter’s microphone put before him. “Are you a Sephardi?” asked the off-camera voice, its owner having apparently noticed the man’s complexion. “Yes,” he replied, “A Yemenite.” Then, with a wry smile at the absurdity of it all, he added “A Yemenite is being taken in [to prison] for racism. Ata meivin? [You understand?]” And yet the headlines blared on, using charged phrases like “ethnic prejudice” and “segregation,” and portraying the jailed parents and their supporters as seeking to discriminate against Sephardim, invoking, as did the court, American blacks’ struggle for civil rights in the 1950s. They got it perfectly backward. The haredi parents and marchers were championing their rights as parents to educate their children as they wish. They, if anyone, are the Martin Luther Kings here. The court, sad to say, assumed the Bull Connor role.
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