I am going to jail because the education of my daughter
A haredi father being taken to jail for failing to comply with a court ruling on segregated schools on June 17, 2010. Photo by Tomer Appelbaum
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Thirty-five fathers of Ashkenazi girls who attend an illegally segregated school in the West Bank settlement of Immanuel arrived at the Ma'asiyahu Prison last night to serve a two-week sentence.

However, two fathers and 22 mothers failed to show up at police headquarters in Jerusalem's Russian Compound, in defiance of a court order.

Hundreds of Haredi (ultra-Orthodox ) protesters awaited the fathers at the prison, where they prayed, sang songs and danced as the bus entered the prison gates.

Earlier yesterday, some 100,000 ultra-Orthodox demonstrators thronged Jerusalem's streets in support of the Ashkenazi parents' right to keep their children segregated from their Sephardi peers. It was one of the largest Haredi demonstrations in recent years.

The imbroglio began because the Ashkenazi parents, who are generally of European descent, did not want their daughters to study in the same classes as Sephardi girls, who are generally of Mideast or North African descent. The Ashkenazi parents say they are not racist, but want to keep the classrooms segregated, as they have been for years, because the families of the Sephardi girls are not religious enough.

The High Court of Justice rejected that argument, but the parents refused to obey its ruling. Earlier this week, therefore, it ordered the parents who defied the integration order jailed.

"The ultra-Orthodox public and its leaders have proved so far that it is possible to protest while abiding by the law," Police Commissioner David Cohen told a police meeting yesterday. "I hope the restraint we saw today will characterize all confrontations between the police and the Haredi public, or other groups, of which we've had quite a few lately."

When the parents arrived at the Russian Compound earlier yesterday, one of the fathers said, "I'm going to jail with great excitement and joy over the support we've received."

"We are making sure our children get the best education possible," he added.

The fathers' prison conditions will be better than those of ordinary criminals. They will be entitled, among other things, to unlimited telephone conversations and special kosher food certified by their own Haredi rabbis. They will not have to wear Prison Service uniforms or mingle with the other prisoners.

But neither the special privileges nor the short prison term softened the protesters' statements. Some said they felt persecuted by the state.

"Just as Israel feels isolated and misunderstood by the world after the Turkish flotilla [incident], we feel that way all the time," grumbled one young ultra-Orthodox man at the protest. "No matter how much we explain ourselves, the state is always against us."

A leading modern Orthodox rabbi urged religious Zionists not to participate in the mass protests, regardless of the political price the Haredim may exact for this refusal in the future.

"I cannot take part in the racism and discrimination that is taking place, which is just the tip of the iceberg," said Rabbi Yuval Cherlow, who heads a hesder yeshiva, which combines Torah study with army service, in Petah Tikva.