Court: Immanuel Parents Will Go to Jail Tomorrow if They Don't Desegregate School

The High Court of Justice yesterday threatened to jail the defiant parents who have refused to desegregate an ultra-Orthodox school in the West Bank settlement of Immanuel.

A panel of justices headed by Edmond Levy ruled that the parents, all Ashkenazim, must notify the court by today of their intention to implement an earlier High Court ruling that required their daughters to share classrooms and teachers with peers of Sephardi origin. Failure to do so will result in a two-week jail term.

Justices Levy, Edna Arbel and Hanan Melcer also instructed the parents to submit a carbon copy of their statement to Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein.

The ruling came in response to a petition filed by social activist Rabbi Yoav Lalum, of the Noar Kahalacha nonprofit organization, and Dr. Aviad Hacohen, dean of the Sha'arei Mishpat law school.

In April, the court instructed the Beit Yaakov school in Immanuel to figure out a way to run classes for both Ashkenazi and Sephardi girls without segregating them.

But rather than comply with that ruling, Ashkenazi parents set up a separate, privately-run educational program next door to the school. They also rejected efforts by the school and the state-funded Hinuch Atzma'i ("Independent Education" ) system, which runs it, to find a compromise that would enable Ashkenazi and Sephardi girls to study together.

The court responded by leveling fines against the parents for each day that they refused to desegregate the school. But during yesterday's hearing, the justices learned that the fines were never paid.

The justices ruled that the parents' refusal to abide by the desegregation order places them in contempt of court. They rejected the parents' assertion that the separation of Ashkenazi and Sephardi girls is necessary for religious reasons.

Should the parents maintain their opposition to the original ruling, they will be placed in jail for a period of two weeks beginning tomorrow. The justices said they would cut short the sentence if the parents inform the court of their intention to implement the desegregation order before the two-week period ends.

They also ordered the state to prepare to collect the fines that were levied against both the parents and the Hinuch Aztma'i school system.

The justices said the Ashkenazi girls should be sent to the school to study with the Sephardi girls until the end of the current school year. A permanent solution could then be explored during the summer recess.

"The petitioners regret the fact that the court was required to exercise the most serious sanctions at its disposal against those who violated its rulings," said Hacohen afterward. "I hope that the parents come to their senses and send their girls back to the school immediately."

The attorney who represented the Ashkenazi parents, Mordechai Green, argued during the hearing that his clients are entitled to choose whether or not to send their daughters to the school as it is presently constituted. "We have freedom of choice, freedom of education and freedom of conscience," Green said. "Freedom, freedom, freedom ... This is a clear, fundamental right."

Green said the parents are not implementing a discriminatory policy, nor are they demanding segregation. "They simply decided not to send their daughters to learn in a school that operates according to the present guidelines," he said.

But Levy retorted, "The issue at hand is a ruling handed down by a court. No ruling by a court, certainly not one by the Supreme Court, is subject to approval by anybody, not even a religious authority. A ruling does not require the approval of this or that rabbi." The dramatic hearing was followed by a protest staged by the Ashkenazi parents. As Justices Levy, Arbel, and Melcer left the courtroom, dozens of ultra-Orthodox protesters gathered and shouted "God is our lord!" at them. Court security guards tried to clear the rowdy hall.