How Jewish Is It to Drive a Wall Between Haredi and Secular Children?

The divided Beit Shemesh school is but a symptom of the deep divisions in Israeli society - and the Jewish community whose segregation between streams has run us off-course as a people.

Emil Salman

Rabbi Shlomo Riskin once pointed out the following irony. A whole number of our dietary laws were legislated in order to make it hard (though not impossible) for Jews to eat with non-Jews – and thus socialize with them. For instance, a meal completely prepared by a non-Jewish cook isn't kosher. Thus, we are encouraged to eat only with other Jews. But, he pointed out, the number one reason why some Jews won't eat with other Jews is because of dietary laws: “Your house isn't kosher enough for me!”

The law is the law. But, an understanding of what motivated the law, even if it doesn't justify breaking the law, can help us think about how far we've gone wrong as a people; what sorts of remedies we should be taking; and where we should be looking for lenient interpretations of the law, and religious compromises.

I don't think you could find a more searing image of just how far our sectarianism has come than the image of a metal fence dividing a school in half to separate ultra-Orthodox and secular children.

The story behind the image is this. An ultra-Orthodox school in Beit Shemesh had a classroom shortage. A secular school in the same city had some free space (at least according to the municipality). So, against the will of the secular school, the municipality decided to facilitate something of an invasion. The ultra-Orthodox school would take over the “free” space in the secular school and thereby take over a portion of the campus.

It turns out that the Education Ministry is furious with the municipality, and sought a court order to prevent the ultra-Orthodox school from using the disputed campus. It even put the wheels in motion toward the eventual forced closure of the offending ultra-Orthodox school. But the Jerusalem District Court rejected the ministry’s request for an interim injunction, allowing the two schools to continue operating for the time being. (They did, however, tear down the wall, at the mayor’s behest.)

Beyond the story, and whatever its eventual resolution may be, the image that stays with me is the image of that metal wall. Why was it erected? I can only imagine that this was so that when the ultra-Orthodox children went out to play in their half of the playground, they wouldn't have to see or, God forbid, fraternize with their secular peers.

The Israeli state school system has four streams: secular, Arab, Modern Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox. I partly understand why this has to be. The State of Israel has an indigenous non-Jewish population. To force them to be educated in Hebrew would be a politically toxic and volatile decision. It would reinforce among the most disenfranchised Arab-Israelis the unfortunate view that we are their imperial overlords, oppressing them into assimilating and giving up their identity.

I also understand why ultra-Orthodox and Modern-Orthodox parents want their children to have a specially crafted education. It isn't just that you want to protect them from harmful outside influence, or inculcate them from the religious doubts that may accompany, say, evolutionary biology being taught in the classrooms. On the contrary, as a Modern-Orthodox parent myself, I want my children to be taught the very best in science and critical thought.

What really drives my desire to have my children educated in an Orthodox environment is that, to be a Jewishly literate adult, in the Orthodox tradition, there is a tremendous amount that you need to know. That mass of knowledge isn't easily accumulated in after school activities. It needs to be part of their core curriculum. There is also a culture that we want to protect, and we want to acculturate our children.

But, whatever the arguments in its favour, the segregation of children into these different streams contributes to a segregated society in Israel at large. The solution is not simply forcing them all to come together, as this would constitute an attack on so many important rights and freedoms. Perhaps schools across the streams could be partnered with one another just for certain classes, for example, or for optional extracurricular activity, such as joint sports teams, music, and drama clubs; to build relationships and trust across our communal divisions.

Like Rabbi Riskin's observation about dietary laws, this segregation in the school system has driven Israeli society so far off-course. It was Christianity and Islam that defined their religious identity primarily around a creed. Judaism was always different. We were a people before we were a religion. Moses demanded that Pharaoh let his people go, not his co-religionists. We always had the idea that you could still be a Jew even if you didn't believe.

Bizarrely, the Passover Haggadah defines the apostate as the person who, like the evil son of the four sons narrative, cuts himself off from the communal identity. A parent who can't bear for their children even to look at another Jewish child is splitting that child off from the wider communal identity. They are, by the lights of the Haggadah, apostates, and they are smuggling into their religion distinctly Christian and Muslim conceptions of what their Jewish identity should amount to.

Rabbi Dr. Samuel Lebens is a Research Fellow at the Center for Philosophy of Religion at the Rutgers University. He also chairs the Association for the Philosophy of Judaism.