Putting things into perspective

This is a guest post from Davka
Last week some 100,000 orthodox Jews paraded through the streets of Jerusalem in support of parents wishing to set up a breakaway ‘Ashkenazi’ ultra-orthodox school in the town of Emmanuel – one of the largest demonstrations ever held in Israel.
Like much of the liberal press in Israel and abroad, Rachel Shabi’s Comment is Free piece has spun the Emmanuel affair as an example of ‘discrimination on grounds of skin colour’. While there is never any justification for racism, It is much more complex than that. Some 25 parents who are being ordered to jail for contempt of court are themselves Sephardi, indicating that the affair has more to do with fanatical religious observance than racism.
The tired old charge that this is another example of the ‘Ashkenazi’ establishment ‘s institutionalised discrmination against disadvantaged Sephardim no longer sticks: the Israeli establishment has long ceased to be Ashkenazi, and ethnic differences, with intermarriage running at 25 percent, are increasingly blurred. Jews from Arab and Muslim countries are not some marginalised minority. They account for fifty percent of the population. Sephardim or Mizrahim are broadly represented, have achieved high office in government and have held every ministerial post except prime minister. Neither does the accusation that Israel is hypocritically doing nothing to combat discrimination hold water: plenty of NGOS are working in Israel to bridge the economic and educational gap.
Let’s get some sense of perspective: the Emmanuel affair is a controversy that concerns an ultra-ultra-orthodox sect, the Slonim Hassidim. It affects the extreme ultra-orthodox fringe of Israeli society, one of the few sectors where Ashkenazi-Sephardi differences still matter. It is irrelevant to the vast majority of Israelis.
Cultural differences seem to be the main factor here – while more traditionally observant than Ashkenazim, Sephardim have always been more open to outside influences, while ultra-orthodox Ashkenazim have tended to look inward and cut themselves off from the outside world.
Maimonides, the great medieval rabbi and philosopher, was also physician to Saladdin. This sort of typical Sephardi synthesis of the spiritual and the worldly never existed in the shtetls of eastern Europe. Had Maimonides been alive today, he might well have used the internet and watched TV.
In the Emmanuel case, the ultra-orthodox Ashkenazi parents’ main gripe seems to be that the Sephardi girls, by and large, are not observant enough for their standards. It may all boil down to something as basic as whether the girls are being corrupted by watching TV at home, or whether they keep their blouses buttoned up to the top.
However, the intervention of the Israeli courts has polarised opinion, and politicised an issue that should and could have been settled well away from the glare of international publicity. They are right to insist that a state-funded school must abide by non-discriminatory admissions criteria. But the Israeli Supreme Court should be criticised for handing down draconian jail sentences and insisting on their enforcement. Their heavy-handed approach has only created martyrs. It has forced a confrontation between ‘religious’ and ‘secular’. No one doubts that this serious social faultline in Israeli society needs urgent attention. The ultra-orthodox are one of the fastest growing sectors, but are resented by secular Israelis for not serving in the army or holding down productive jobs.
The very root of the problem, highlighted by the Emmanuel affair, is this: the Sephardi orthodox simply do not have an adequate educational infrastructure of their own. Although the religious Sephardi party Shas has improved matters, Sephardim, driven out from Arab countries in the last 50 years, are still suffering the effects of the destruction of their orthodox heritage. That’s why many ultra-orthodox Sephardim have adopted Yiddish and Ashkenazi orthodox customs – they have become ‘lithuanianised’, as the academic Shmuel Trigano puts it. Religious Sephardim need to be empowered to teach their own Sephardi rich culture and brand of orthodoxy.
The Slonim Hassidim should be encouraged to set up their own private school. This school would have every right to its own admissions policy, but not at the Israeli taxpayer’s expense. This is broadly the line taken by the Sephardi orthodox party Shas . As one secular professor has pointed out, nobody objected to Shas setting up its own Sephardi-only schools: it’s positive discrimination, not racism.

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