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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I really would like to dedicate this column to praising Supreme Court Justice Edmond Levy for standing up for the rule of law and calling time on the despicable segregation between girls of Ashkenazi origin and those of Sephardi or Mizrahi origin in ultra-Orthodox schools. But as much as his decision to jail the 74 couples who are refusing to allow their daughters to attend a desegregated school in Immanuel for their breathtaking contempt of his court is justified, his judicial wrath is misdirected.

Justice Levy has changed the rules that allow the ultra-Orthodox rabbis to decide upon every aspect of the education of 20 percent of Israel's children. One can understand the anger of the parents and the rabbis at the fact that nobody told them about the change. But you can be certain that the final outcome of the Immanuel saga will take the form of a new school, solely for girls from the "Hasidic stream" (that is, Ashkenazi ). Instead of one small school, split done the middle, there will be two tiny ones. A monument to Haredi separatism and bigotry, and also to the limits of Israeli sovereignty.

The issue of state versus private education is a controversial one in most democracies. But even in the most liberal countries private schools must accept some form of government supervision and calibrate at least part of their schedule to the national curriculum. In those countries, "private" schools are just that, privately funded. In Israel, the vast, overwhelming majority of ultra-Orthodox schools receive most of their funding, usually around 75 percent, from the state. They are not required to teach the core subjects determined by the Education Ministry, nor are they obliged to prepare their students for national examinations. Officially, they are under the aegis of the woefully understaffed Haredi education department in the ministry. But the education inspectors, omnipotent when it comes to the other educational streams, have no real say when it comes to ultra-Orthodox schools. Most are Haredi themselves, and wouldn't dream of contradicting the rabbis who control the schools.

But even this is too much for some Haredi schools. They go for the option of rejecting even token supervision while still being entitled to have the taxpayer provide 55 percent of their budget.

We can blame the Haredi community for its arrogance, but the real blame lies with all of Israel's successive governments. For 62 years they allowed it to happen, approving ever-greater budgets and increased autonomy for the ultra-Orthodox schools. That's not something the High Court of Justice can change. The court would not be challenging the status quo had a small number of brave petitioners not decided to go all the way against the segregation in Immanuel. But this is a local issue, which has been inaccurately portrayed in the media as a matter of Ashkenazy bigotry, even racism. It is actually an example of the Haredi class system by which those who were born into the community will always be superior to the ba'alei teshuva, those who choose religious observance later in life.

The real issue at stake here is the extent to which a closed and separate community can be allowed to manage its own affairs in a democratic state. Does the government have any responsibility to children whose parents choose to belong to a group that shuns modern education? When can the courts intervene to prevent perceived injustices carried out in the name of a belief that is not the norm? Where do we draw the line between the duties of society and a dictatorship of the majority? The Haredi leadership claims to uphold not only Jewish values, or their interpretation of those values, but also the sacred cause of democracy. How can the government tell them how to educate their children, they ask, this is a secular Zionist dictatorship!

On the airwaves, they liken the justices to the Bolshevik commissars who shut all Jewish schools in the Soviet Union. In booklets intended for internal consumption the comparison is with the Spanish Inquisition and the Holocaust. But there's no need to go that far; how are ultra-Orthodox schools faring today in the lands of the goyim?

The Immanuel parents are willing to go to prison to defend their "pure education" and a way of life they claim to have been leading for 3,000 years. For them, the Slonim Rebbe's rulings take precedence over the law of the land. But somehow their brothers abroad seem to have no problem subjecting their children's schools to the inspectors of the non-Jewish authorities. Haredi schools in every country in the West teach the subjects of the national curriculum and are tested by the same examinations as everyone else.

If this was indeed a matter of life and death, a cause worth sitting in jail for, surely the ultra-Orthodox communities of New York and London would long ago have uprooted themselves and moved to the only country in the world that not only allows them total educational freedom but even pays for it. There is only one reason the Haredi leadership in Israel insists on running a totally independent education system, with no governmental involvement. They know they can get away with it. David Ben-Gurion, in the early days of the state, wanted a single education system for all, but political and practical circumstances precluded this. Then, it was the powerful secular parties that insisted on keeping their special schools. The only community whose schools were controlled closely was the Arab community. For security reasons, of course.

Ben-Gurion wasn't worried about the ultra-Orthodox. He believed they were a small, archaic group that was destined to dwindle and die out. He was sure that just as he had put aside the tefillin and prayer book of his childhood, so too would the young generation of Haredim choose to be part of a brave new society. How wrong he was. Today, almost 300,000 children are enrolled in ultra-Orthodox schools in Israel - 51 percent more than a decade ago.

With the exception of a muted response from Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar, no senior cabinet minister has said anything about the Immanuel situation. They can do the political math. Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu will lose his coalition if he is seen in any way to be supporting government interference in Haredi schools. If Justice Levy genuinely wants to establish the supremacy of law over a recalcitrant minority, he should direct his efforts toward the government.