Parents of girls with roots in Arab countries filed a petition this week alleging discriminatory and intentionally vague admissions exams and practices that infringe on their daughters’ rights to attend schools in the ultra-Orthodox town of Elad.
This comes six years after a court required all high schools in Elad to admit students in accordance with school enrollment zones.
The petition filed in Jerusalem District Court this week, with legal assistance from the Justice Ministry, is the latest legal chapter in the longstanding battle over alleged discrimination against Mizrahi girls by Haredi schools, which are run by Ashkenazi organizations (groups with roots in Europe.)
According to the petition, admissions tests “serve only as cover” for improper considerations on the schools’ part in deciding whether to admit girls of Middle Eastern descent. The petition also claims that the Education Ministry is not fulfilling its role of supervising these schools and that the Elad municipality is failing to comply with previous court rulings on the matter.
“The ministry and the ultra-Orthodox authorities are providing institutional cover for racism,” claims Adv. Yoav Laloum, a lawyer for the group Noar Kahalakha, which is engaged in civil rights issues in the Haredi, or ultra-Orthodox, community. Internal documents from the Education Ministry also show that the professionals admit that "there was indeed no regional registration in Elad."
Two years ago, Y., a female student, applied to continue her studies at the Lada’at Hohma religious girls’ high school seminary near her home, but was rejected, on the grounds that she had not gotten a passing grade on the seminary’s admissions test, which consisted of a written assessment and an oral exam. At the time, Y. was finishing 8th grade at the Beit Ya’akov elementary school in Elad with an average grade of almost 90 (out of 100). The school’s terse response was identical to one received by one of Y’s relatives, who had been denied admission one year earlier.
According to Y., her Ashkenazi friends who applied told her that they didn’t even answer most of the exam’s questions and were still accepted. Repeated requests of the school made by petitioners and their legal counsel for details regarding the admissions exam have been declined.
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An appeal to the school filed by Y.’s parents’ was immediately dismissed. A subsequent appeal to the appeals committee of the Education Ministry’s Haredi district office tasked with overseeing admissions procedures at ultra-Orthodox institutions, was only met with a response roughly five months later, after the school year had already begun.
By then, Y. had already been assigned to another school, farther away from her home and beyond her designated school enrollment zone. Most of the students at Y’s new school are of Mizrahi descent, according to the petition.
“The screening begins from the moment that our girls go to the main seminaries. Without the right connections, Mizrahi girls stand no chance of being accepted to them,” Y.’s father told Haaretz. "Why can't my daughter continue to study with her friends from elementary school? Why is she sent to a distant school, where almost all the students are Mizrahi? It makes no sense for a 15-year-old girl to [have to] understand that she is being discriminated against and needs to fight for her spot in school just because of her ethnic background.”
That battles such as these are still being waged defy a legal arrangement reached years ago with respect to admissions to ultra-Orthodox schools in Elad. In 2015, the Jerusalem District Court approved a settlement agreement reached by parties in the wake of an administrative petition filed by Adv. Laloum, giving it the status of a court ruling. That petition also claimed that Elad’s religious schools were discriminating against Mizrahi female students when it came to admissions.
An investigation conducted at the time by the Education Ministry found that “there is a real concern that the admissions practices are tainted by unlawful discrimination,” wrote two Tel Aviv district legal aid lawyers, Advs. Ayelet Halberstadt and Anat Assayag.
In the settlement reached in August 2015, the parties agreed that high schools in Elad would admit students based on their places of residence. It was also agreed that the Elad Municipality would enforce the decision and that the Education Ministry would oversee its implementation. If the allegations in the latest petition are true, these commitments are far from being materialized.
The petition alleges that the municipality has “repeatedly violated the plan to which it had committed in the consent decree.” These violations included, among other things, avoiding giving details to the students' families about their enrollment zones and ignoring the schools' commitment to admit students in accordance with such zones. Requests made by Adv. Laloum for the schools to be held in contempt of court were accepted and acceded to by the court, but even these efforts apparently did not bring about a change. The municipality "has continued its efforts to restrict the entry of girls of Oriental descent into high schools in a variety of different and bizarre ways," the petition claims.
Many of the allegations in the petition relate to the Education Ministry’s Haredi district office, which was established during the tenure of former Education Minister Shay Piron in an effort to bring some semblance of order to the state of semi-official anarchy that prevailed in ultra-Orthodox educational settings for many years. Although the organizational and supervisory attempts related mainly to administrative matters, occasionally they touched on sensitive landmines, such as discriminatory practices against Mizrahi girls. And when the ultra-Orthodox parties returned to the government coalition in 2015, the commitment to addressing these issues only waned.
“The Education Ministry’s awareness of the scourge of discrimination does not prevent it,” write the petitioners, adding that the ministry is having a difficult time overseeing and closely monitoring the admissions and registration processes in ultra-Orthodox schools. “Even when it manages to do so and finds a defect – it finds itself helpless and unable to compel the institutions to obey the law.”
For the petitioners, the manner in which the Education Ministry’s Haredi district office handled the appeal filed by Y.'s parents demonstrates these ineptitudes and failures well. Even as the appeals committee pointed to the explanations given by the school – that Y. did not pass the written acceptance test, and the school was not impressed by her during her interview (the latter, a new reason offered) – it also detailed its efforts to get the girl admitted to the seminary "based on a dialogue with the local authority, thus streamlining the process, but unfortunately the decision was not made." The wording "casts a heavy shadow on the correctness and veracity of the 'substantive' reasons for rejecting the application," petitioners claim. Another appeal filed with the Education Ministry at the end of November 2020 has not received any response to date.
In January 2021, Y. tried once again to gain admission to Lada’at Hohma, well ahead of the beginning of the school year that starts in early September. The school rejected her application, this time on the grounds that registration is only open to eighth-grade graduates. At the beginning of the year, Y. was already a ninth grader, having begun high school where she was assigned. Another seminar, also near Y.’s home, also rejected her request for admission, without providing an explanation or written response. Y.’s father has not received a response to another appeal he submitted to the Education Ministry. .
When Y.’s father complained to the public complaints commission at the State Comptroller's Office – about the local authority’s refusal to assign his daughter to a school near their home as required by the 2015 ruling, and about the Education Ministry’s refusal to properly oversee admission procedures – the answer he received brought to light the secretive conduct, which flies in the face of the court decree: "As part of the investigation, the Education Ministry informed our ministry that to the best of its knowledge and knowledge, no regional registration took place in Elad," that is, students were not registered for schools in accordance with enrollment zones based on residency.
"At first I thought that in the ultra-Orthodox district they would help me, I was naive," said Y.’s father. “In conversations they gave me a feeling that there was no point in messing with the seminars, hinting that we should work within the community. I begged for help, but to some of my letters they did not answer at all. It is an abdication of responsibility."
Adv. Laloum established Noar Kahalacha to fight discrimination in ultra-Orthodox schools almost 20 years ago. According to him, the court "has repeatedly ruled that the Elad municipality violated the 2015 ruling,” but "instead of pressuring the institutions to admit the students, the Education Ministry and the municipality are cooperating with them." After several years during which discriminatory practices against Mizrahi students in admission to seminars were on the decline, Adv. Laloum says that "there is a jump of several hundred cases every year. We have returned to the situation that was in place ten years ago."
"That students are still discriminated against because of their background in 2021 is extremely outrageous, especially when this conduct has already been the subject of legal criticism in the past," said Advs. Halberstadt and Assayag, who examined the situation six years ago.
For its part, the Education Ministry said it would respond to the petition in court and that it “rejects any claim of discrimination against female students by it or with its knowledge.” Officials at the Elad Municipality said that they “adamantly reject any claim of discrimination based on ethnic grounds.” A response from Lada’at Hohma could not be obtained.