We All Lost

The conflict over the students at an Immanuel girls school recalls the "prisoner's dilemma" from game theory. Two prisoners commit a robbery and escape in a stolen car. They are captured, but the available evidence proves only that they stole the car. So the prosecutor offers each man the following deal: Confess to the robbery, turn state's evidence and go free, while your friend will be convicted of the robbery and get five years in jail.

Each asks what would happen if both confessed in the hope of turning state's evidence. The prosecutor responds that then, both would be convicted of the robbery, but since they confessed, their sentence would be reduced to three years. And what if neither confessed? Then they would only be convicted of stealing the car, and would be sentenced to one year each.

Each man's attorney then makes a rational calculation as to what is best for his client: If the other man doesn't confess, my client is better off confessing, because then he will go free. And if the other does confess, my client is still better off confessing, because then he will spend three years in jail rather than five. The result is that both confess and spend three years in jail - whereas if neither had confessed, they would have been sentenced to only one year.

The prisoner's dilemma is a model for situations in which when each side makes the rational decision in light of his own values and considerations, the result is worse for everyone concerned than it would have been had an uninvolved third party made the decision as to what would be best for each. And that is precisely what happened in the Immanuel case.

The petitioners acted rationally when they asked the High Court of Justice to prevent what they saw as discrimination against Sephardi students. The Ashkenazi Haredim (ultra-Orthodox ) also acted rationally, in defense of their own values (which are not hard to understand, regardless of whether or not one agrees with them ), when they refused to accept the court's ruling and preferred to go to jail in order to mobilize the Haredi community against the court's infringement on these values, which they regard as sacred. The court acted according to accepted legal norms after exhausting all possibilities for reaching a mutually agreeable compromise. And government agencies acted rationally - albeit from a very narrow perspective - when, in order to avoid entanglements, they left the whole issue to the court to decide. But the result is that everyone lost.

It remains far from clear that the Sephardi students will now learn together with the Ashkenazim, as the petitioners wanted. The Ashkenazi Haredim ostensibly scored a victory, but at the price of generating hostility among the secular majority, and even parts of the religious community - and this hostility is liable to end up costing them dearly. The court also failed to obtain the result it desired, and did not necessarily emerge stronger from the conflict. And the government simply revealed its weakness again and again.

It would have been better for everyone had the effort to reach a compromise been continued by attempting to think outside the box - for instance, by dismantling the existing school and setting up two new ones in its place.

Relations between the Haredi and secular communities in Israel are not something that can be settled "once and for all." This is an issue that only time can resolve. In the meantime, it is necessary to try to reduce the friction and maintain the status quo, while handling the inevitable conflicts pragmatically, without turning them into fundamental issues of principle.

Any comparison to the aggressive manner in which discrimination was ended in American schools is inappropriate here, because it does not take into account the lengthy historical development that the United States underwent following the Civil War. This development is what made such a solution possible. In Israel, a Jewish and democratic state that is still in the early stages of its development, imposing a solution by force would be untenable.

What is needed instead is a means of containing such crises while laying the groundwork for a shared life despite our basic differences. The big decisions on issues of principle should be left to a time when society is ready for them.

For all the uncertainty over the future, one thing is certain: Our grandchildren and great-grandchildren, secular and Haredi alike, will think differently about these issues, which will assume very different forms than those familiar to us today. It is not incumbent on us to complete the task.

Who is to blame for the fact that we all failed here? To some extent, this question is unfair, because these are processes that inevitably erupt from time to time. Nevertheless, overall responsibility rests with the top echelons of government. They should have realized what was at stake, including the potential damage that could ensue for society as a whole, and done more to put out the fire before it gets out of control.