Israeli Haredi Girls' High Schools Refuse to Accept Dozens of Mizrahi Students

The dispute over school admissions has turned into a political battle between the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox party Shas and the Ashkenazi United Torah Judaism.

Michal Fattal

Dozens of female students have yet to start school this year because the principals at the ultra-Orthodox girls' schools to which they were assigned have refused to accept them because of their Mizrahi, or Middle Eastern, origins.

The dispute between the Education Ministry and the principals over the issue has spilled over into the political arena, pitting the Haredi parties Shas and the Degel Hatorah faction of United Torah Judaism against each other.

At the heart of the dispute are five high schools for girls in Jerusalem that belong to the Bais Yaakov school system that are refusing to accept some 30 ninth-grade students, mostly from Sephardi backgrounds.

Yoav Laloum, a lawyer for the Noar KaHalacha movement which fights such discrimination and helps out students and their families, says 15 girls who were supposed to start first grade in Jerusalem were also rejected for ethnic reasons. In other towns, including Modi’in Ilit and Bnei Brak, dozens of girls are in a similar situation, he said.

Laloum says 16 of the ninth-graders were placed in the schools by the city education authority or the Education Ministry, but the schools, also called seminars, are still refusing to accept them. The principals have called the decision “crude intervention” in the operation of the Haredi institutions. Fourteen of the girls chose not to start school because they were not satisfied with the schools they were assigned to, or their appeals were rejected. Laloum is threatening to petition the High Court of Justice against the cities of Jerusalem and Modi’in Ilit.

The union of seminar principals opened the school year with a work dispute after principals who ignored the Education Ministry and municipality’s assignments were called in for disciplinary hearings. Some gave in and accepted the girls, but the response in the community escalated after the ministry threatened the hold-outs with budget cuts.

On Sunday, seminar principals in Bnei Brak called an emergency meeting, with the support of Degel Hatorah’s Knesset members Moshe Gafni, Uri Maklev and Yaakov Asher, who are all part of United Torah Judaism. Senior rabbis entered the fray on Monday, publishing a letter in the name of a number of rabbis against the Education Ministry’s efforts to force the schools to accept the girls.

“The intervention of an external body is the destruction of education,” wrote the rabbis. A day earlier they made it clear at a rally that the “external body” was not just the Education Ministry, but the municipalities as well, in particular Jerusalem deputy mayor Zvi Cohen, who represents Shas and holds the Haredi education portfolio in city hall.

Interior Minister Arye Dery, the chairman of Shas, said in a radio interview on Monday that the party and its Council of Torah Sages give Cohen their full support. “Through hard work he has succeeded in solving many problems and enrolling many Sephardi girls in the seminars,” said Dery.

“We fought in order to receive the education portfolio in Jerusalem in order to solve the harsh and continuing problem of discrimination against boys and girls who are left without an educational framework, and whose entire sin is that they are children of Sephardi families,” Dery added.