Haredim in Supreme Court
Yoav Laloum (at front) with other Haredim at the Supreme Court, this week. Photo by Emil Salman
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Even someone who has been involved in as many struggles and conflicts as Yoav Laloum, the fearless fighter against discrimination in the ultra-Orthodox community, could not have foreseen the storm that erupted in the Haredi world this week. Nothing prepared Laloum for the huge protests that came in the wake of the High Court of Justice's ruling ordering the incarceration of parents of Ashkenazi girls in the Orthodox settlement of Immanuel if they continued discriminating against the Mizrahi girls in the Bais Yaakov school in the town. The demonstrations in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak were backed by the Haredi rabbinical establishment, and were accompanied by marches of support for the parents who are going to jail.

What hurt him most of all was the declaration of Shas spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, who condemned the petition submitted to the court, and in effect aligned himself with the Ashkenazi rabbis. "Shas has abandoned me," said Laloum last night, who is now in hiding, after receiving death threats and being told by the police to leave his Jerusalem home. "In effect it has abandoned the Sephardi community. It should have waged this battle over discrimination, but they're also afraid." Later he said that "Rabbi Ovadia's statement is actually directed at me."

Laloum was already worried in the High Court on Tuesday, in the face of the religious zeal of the parents, members of the Slonim Hasidic sect, and their song "Utzu Etza Vetufar" (meaning, "contrive a scheme and it will be foiled "). He knows full well that inflaming public emotions by means of Jewish archetypes (that compare a High Court decision to a decree of forced conversion, no less ) is liable to drag the Haredi public into religious battles and stir up their longstanding hatred of the Supreme Court - derailing the petition's original intention, which was to end discrimination.

At the beginning of the month, Laloum, through his attorney Aviad Hacohen, demanded that the ruling be carried out in full vis-a-vis the parents who, according to him, "continue to be partners, through action and inaction, directly and indirectly, in the ongoing contempt of the ruling and decisions of this honorable court."

But when the judges accepted his argument, he sounded disappointed at the result. "We didn't expect this craziness," he admits. "I'm not pleased about the fact that Jews have to go to prison and be punished. It's not something that makes me happy, especially since all along we have provided all the possible means to help them back down."

Even before the petition, Laloum, who has served before as an advocate for parents whose daughters have been rejected from Ashkenazi educational institutions, drew fire from Haredi society. But from the day that he brought the problem to the High Court he became a "hater of Israel" (okher Yisrael ), and he found his cell phone number publicized on pashkevilim (protest posters in ultra-Orthodox communities ).

"Pashkevilim are the dirty work methods of a mafia," says Laloum. "That's what happens when you can't handle the just arguments. Then you think about how to harm my surroundings, my family."

"Remove your beard," someone screamed over the phone in one of the dozens of phone calls that interrupted the interview with him on Wednesday. "An impure person, an abomination, a Jew hater," shouted an anonymous caller with a hoarse voice in another call. In the end the man offered Laloum his hope "that your daughter will take up evil ways."

Laloum filed a complaint with the police when the stream of abusive phone calls began. Now, he says, people are threatening his life.

But as the conversation with him continued, he also had calls from people who wanted to encourage him. Even they did not identify themselves. "Do not be afraid," said one, and another: "Go with your strength with the Holy One, blessed be He and he will punish them for throwing us out [of the schools]."

He says that he has received hundreds of messages of encouragement and support, though anonymously.

"People are still afraid of the Ashkenazim," he chuckles bitterly. "They see what I'm going through. Who's crazy enough to jump into the water when there's a [danger sign]? Their son will be thrown out of the Talmud Torah [elementary school], their wife will be thrown out of her teaching position, they won't be given a building permit. After all, the Ashkenazi hegemony rules. And they take revenge."

Laloum, a 31-year-old Jerusalemite who is currently completing his law internship, didn't dream of becoming a symbol for justice until discrimination knocked on his door. Three years ago his daughter was not accepted to first grade in the Bais Yaakov school in his neighborhood, Givat Shaul. The ostensible reason: the administration's reservations about his wife's style of dress.

Laloum attempted to defend the name of his wife and his daughter, as well as his honor, and later turned to the courts. Although he won the first round of the battle, and the court ordered the school to accept his daughter, he didn't try to demand that she be accepted there.

With typical Haredi modesty, Laloum claims that he acted with the support of his rabbi, Yaakov Yosef, the son of Ovadia Yosef. That relationship has done nothing to help, though, as Rabbi Yosef himself is considered an anomaly and has not been popular in Haredi society since he quarreled with his father (they have since reconciled ).

Rabbi Yosef has a small camp of supporters of his own and he provides Laloum with some minor support. Laloum also established a nonprofit association, Noar Kahalakha, which serves as the headquarters for the battle against discrimination in educational institutions.

The association coordinates the requests of parents whose children were rejected from schools and teachers' seminaries , and is fighting the rejections vis-a-vis the Education Ministry. Its main achievement lies in exposing the excuses that are used to reject Mizrahi girls and the quotas for accepting a small minority of them, as a kind of olive branch, in educational institutions controlled by Ashkenazim. Laloum even recruited Hacohen, who heads the law school in the Shaarei Mishpat Academic College in Hod Hasharon, to run the legal campaign, the very mention of whose name, according to rumors, in the ears of a school principal is likely to get things moving there.

No love for the leadership

His social conscience, he says, dates back to his childhood, when he heard his father called "black" in an Ashkenazi school. And it hurts him that he does not receive support from Shas, the party that ostensibly should have defended the Mizrahim and been his home base.

About two weeks ago Laloum mustered up his courage and attended the wedding of the daughter of former Shas chairman Aryeh Deri. According to Haredi websites, he was humiliated when Deri refused to shake his outstretched hand.

"There are people with special interests who are slandering me," Laloum says. "But there's no truth to it." In fact, he says that he conducted a friendly conversation with Deri, during which Deri "asked why I didn't come to consult with him before going to the High Court."

It's easy to guess why Laloum didn't consult. He has an independent opinion and harsh criticism of the Haredi leadership. He believes that the discrimination against the Mizrahi public is only part of a profound problem in Haredi society, which is itself based on racism. The other problem is the increasing religious extremism that Ashkenazim are forcing on the entire Haredi public.

Many in the Haredi community claim that the crux of the problem is not racism but cultural differences, a position that infuriates Laloum.

"If that's isn't racism, what is it? Everyone knows that there's racism that is reflected in discrimination in the Talmud Torah schools, the [teachers] seminars," he says. "But the problem here is deeper. It's a matter of Ashkenazi control and hegemony. A relatively small community that is trying to impose its extremist lifestyle on all of society. In Immanuel there are 30 Hasidic families, as compared to a Sephardi public of 500 families. But the head of the local council is Ashkenazi and he is already serving his second term.

"The teachers in Bais Yaakov belong to the Slonim Hasidim, and the sect does whatever it likes in the school: walls of separation. But in fact the entire debate between us revolves around whether the girls' blouses will be buttoned up to the wrist or 10 centimeters below the elbow. There's no argument about the fact that everyone, all the parents, meet the stringent requirements of halakha. We're not talking here about Shabbat observance, yes or no. The argument is about stringencies. If you want stringencies, impose them on yourself. Once and for all, you have to understand that if the father wears a blue shirt that doesn't make the home any less a house of Torah. I have no problem if every group establishes a school. We didn't stop them from establishing a school on their own, we stopped them from taking control of an existing school, which receives [state money]. It was a hostile takeover and we had to act."

In spite of the High Court decision, Laloum made an effort to prevent the protests. He's afraid that the decision will cause the ultra-Orthodox to lean toward extremes.

"This jail [sentence] changed everything. It's a prize for the other side. After the ruling about revoking guaranteed income to the Haredim - something I don't agree with - here's the spark that will set the keg on fire."

In light of developments, and perhaps because of his evident fatigue, Laloum is not at all certain he'll continue on to other battles. The battle is public, not personal, he says, adding: "The moment that things are repaired we will be ready to return to anonymity."

Although he says that he has no political ambitions, in the same breath he says that the command that guides him is the phrase from Ethics of our Fathers: "In a place where there is no man, be a man."

He says that "people call and tell me 'We're with you,'" and suddenly he raises his voice and sounds like a leader of the masses.

"There are moments when I feel almost like Aryeh Deri, coming to the Sephardi public after 10 years when he wasn't in the picture. The Sephardim were waiting for someone to save our honor. We don't want positions of honor. Let the Ashkenazim keep them. But at least when we go to register our daughter for school, we don't want to be rejected."