The High Court Isn't Racist

In the battle over segregation in schools, the issue is not Jewish religious law, but the racist social norms that characterize the entire ultra-Orthodox worldview.

Yair Sheleg
Yair Sheleg
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Yair Sheleg
Yair Sheleg

The case of ethnic discrimination at a girls' religious school in Immanuel should be examined from the standpoint of both principle and practicality.

Haredim protesting at the High Court of Justice on Tuesday June 15, 2010.Credit: Emil Salman

On the level of principle, there are no words to describe the shame provoked by this blatant ultra-Orthodox racism. This isn't a debate between a High Court of Justice ruling and orders from on high, as some Haredim would have us believe, because there is nothing in the leading halakhic texts, such as the Shulhan Arukh and the Mishneh Torah, that sanctions such discrimination.

Indeed, there could be no such ruling, since both Joseph Karo and Moses Maimonides, who compiled the Shulhan Arukh and the Mishneh Torah, respectively, were themselves Sephardim.

The issue, then, is not Jewish religious law, but rather the racist social norms that characterize the entire ultra-Orthodox worldview. (The Haredim, as we know, also discriminate against the newly religious. )

Nor is there any justification for comparing this obvious racism with the extent to which Sephardim, or religious Jews, are represented as justices on the High Court itself. Indeed, it is a pity that in the name of multiculturalism and the desire to "include" the Haredim in mainstream discourse, secular media figures fall into this simplistic trap.

The criteria for appointment to the Supreme Court must be the quality of the candidate's rulings, character and intellect. In my view, they also include the capacity for a complex, considered perspective on the needs and values of Israeli society.

On the practical level, however, the problem should be addressed more cautiously than it was in the High Court this week. There was no need to reach the point of attempting to impose integration by judicial fiat, even if this segregation is infuriating to any level-headed person.

In a society that contains communities whose identities are different from, and sometimes even polar opposites of, each other, there is a constant tension between the right of each community to maintain its way of life and the enforcement of universal norms of human rights. The test, as always, is one of maintaining this delicate balance, and of proportionality.

In this respect, it seems that the injury to the Sephardi students' human rights was not so grave as to warrant the imposition of integrated classrooms by judicial fiat, particularly in light of the fact that they could easily have avoided this slight to their dignity by relinquishing, from the outset, the dubious "right" to attend a racist school.

It would therefore be appropriate to make do with the court's long-term solution - revoking the school's state funding - instead of insisting on arm-twisting tactics during the two weeks remaining in the school year.

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