In the religious education system, racism - which is smothered in the secular education system in the name of political correctness and selection of students for 'excellence' - is so blatant as to be crude.
In March 2007, after a woman whose husband refused to divorce her had been turned away by the rabbinate for the thousandth time, Dr. Chana Kehat, founder of the religious feminist organization Kolech, issued an impassioned plea to secular Israelis. "Don't go through the rabbinate [to get married]," she said. "Who needs this mythological system of 'the law of Moses and Israel'? Why have we not managed to educate the public and uproot this matter?"
Kehat's arrow hit the bull's-eye - because those primarily to blame for the growing power of the Orthodox establishment are not the religious or the ultra-Orthodox, but the secular. In a capitulation born of a mixture of fear and ignorance, most of them have allowed the rabbis, ever since the state was established, to dictate the manner of their births, marriages and deaths.
But now that children of Ethiopian immigrants have been summarily rejected by schools in Petah Tikva, it has become even clearer that it is not only those three key life-cycle events that the Orthodox control, nor is it only over the definition of "Who is a Jew" that they wield scandalous power. The fact is that every convert is in danger of having his conversion certificate revoked at any moment.
And the secular are shocked: How is it possible that such crude racism has emerged among us? Once again, the secular public has been revealed in all its weakness and foolishness. After all, in ultra-Orthodox schools - which have always been based on "excellence" combined with family lineage and community standing - discrimination and rejection have always been the norm, and no one has ever interfered. Their doors will never be darkened by the weak, the learning-disabled, the different, the children of the newly religious or those with a relative who has abandoned religion, and certainly not by the Sephardim, those scions of Jewish communities in the Middle East.
That, after all, was the background to Shas' meteoric rise: Every child who did not learn in heder (an ultra-Orthodox kindergarten) to pronounce his letters with a thick Ashkenazi accent, but instead pronounced them as they are written, was kept out, unless he was accepted by the prestigious institution to which he applied as part of a "quota" for Sephardim - which would happen only if he were both talented and quick to erase any remnant of his own cultural heritage.
The identical treatment of ultra-Orthodox girls is exposed every year anew, when the Separdi girls are kept out. And the situation is not much different for Sephardim in the religious Zionist community: In the best case, they are pushed to the margins of their yeshiva high schools, and in the worst case, they are not admitted at all.
Shas' school system has enjoyed dizzying success in its competition with the state religious school system, and Petah Tikva is a prime example: The excellent kindergartens and schools run by Shas' Ma'ayan Hahinuch Hatorani network boast, and rightly so, of their students' impressive achievements - not only in Torah study, but also in math, English and science. A few have now become spearheads of excellence in the semi-private system, which isolates itself from the state education system. All principals in the "private system," regardless of their religious affiliation, are convinced that the latter is meant not for the poor, but for the mediocre.
In the religious education system, racism - which is smothered in the secular education system in the name of political correctness and selection of students for "excellence" - is so blatant as to be crude. But it is Israeli society, and especially its enlightened secular members, that allowed the Ethiopian immigrants to be pushed to these ugly margins. This was inevitable the moment it tacitly accepted the principle that Ethiopian immigrants must undergo pro forma conversion, while the Falashmura [descendants of Ethiopian Jews who converted to Christianity at some stage] must undergo full conversion - compelling both to give their children a religious education, in which the "excellent" schools reject them.
Therefore, instead of a generation of youngsters who would excel at the Technion, at university and as army officers, after having been educated in secular state schools and youth villages where they would receive assistance from Ethiopian immigrant educators and others, we are raising a new generation of humiliated, weak youngsters with no chance of receiving an education or contributing to society.
In light of the unrestrained lunacy of the Hardal (Zionist ultra-Orthodox) rabbis and their war against those rabbis who have sought to make conversion easier, young Ethiopian leaders have been left with no choice: They must ignore the pressure and, like Kehat, issue an emancipation declaration to their community.
Don't give in, they must say. Don't convert. Let the immigrants from the former Soviet Union be your model: They have enrolled their children in whichever schools they please and made use of education experts from the Fidel organization and others in order to help their children advance and give them a future. The Rabbinate will surely not declare them kosher, but don't be afraid. You are Israelis and your children are Israelis, and it makes no difference what the Rabbinate writes - or what the state shamelessly copies from it.