I went to observe the 20,000 haredim who demonstrated in Bene Brak on Thurs. 5bTamuz (17June) and read about the 100,000 in Jerusalem who quietly protested against a ruling of the Israel Supreme Court. This led me to ruminate on the Amish sect in Wisconsin and a ruling by the U.S. Supreme. In the 1972 Wisconsin vs. Yoder case, an Amish parent, Jonas Yoder, was fined $5 for not following the state’s compulsory secondary education laws. But the U.S. Supreme Court overturned the decision, finding that the benefits of universal education do not justify violation of the freedom of religion clause in the First Amendment. In the U.S., the Supreme Court affirmed the parents’ right to educate their children according to their lights. But in Israel the Supreme Court did the opposite: the justices denied this right to parents in the Israeli town of Emanuel, fined them, and began to imprison over sixty mothers and fathers for a fortnight.
One quarter in hasidic track are Sefardim
The Supreme Court and the secular media tried to paint the ultra-Orthodox (haredi) Ashkenazi parents in the Emanuel school as racists bent on segregating their daughters from girls of Sefardi families, Jews originating from Middle Eastesn countries. But this is clearly not a case of racial or ethnic segregation because more than a quarter of the girls in the more stringently religious hasidic track are from Sefardi families, and at least three of the parents arrested are Sefardi. All girls who would accept the stricter religious code in the Slonim hasidic track in the school were accepted. Those Sefardi girls who preferred to abide by a more lenient dress and behavior regimen, chose the less religious track. Thus the Beit Yaakov school had two tracks.
The Court meddled with the two-track arrangement, assuming it knew what was best for the students. The justices in the Supreme Court were so fixated on imposing their own “one size fits all” concept of education that instead of delicately approaching the issue of separate tracks, they ruled against the parents who refused to send their girls back to school when the separate track formulation was compromised. Thus the parents were in contempt of court. But the justices won a pyrrhic victory. Instead of promoting peace, they advanced acrimony.
“Segregation”- a red herring
I met David Rosenberg, 19, on one of the many buses that brought haredim (Ashkenazim and Sefardim) from Kiryat Sanz, Netanya to Bene Brak. He began the interview by stating quietly, “This is a defining moment. The issue is whether our highest authority is the High Court, or the One on High.” He elaborated, “It isn’t that we don’t respect courts less, but that we respect our rabbinical authorities more. The controversy has almost nothing to do with what they call segregation of Sefardim”
Mr. Rosenberg’s observation that one could hardly say the hasidim were segregating their daughters from Sefardim was borne out by what I saw with my own eyes. As the demonstration in Bene Brak got underway, a line of adorable girls clad in white Shabbat blouses stood next to me. These were hasidic and Sefardi girls, from grades one to eight, whose parents were to go to prison . Their pony tails stuck out in back of the cute baseball caps whose visors shaded them from the high-noon sun. I chatted with them, and saw the close camaraderie among the girls from different ethnic groups. Their teacher held a collection of “letters to our parents” that the girls had written. They were soon invited to the porch of a first floor apartment, front row center seats where they could watch the demonstration (of which they were ostensibly the cause).
Mazal, the Bene Brak aunt of one of the Sefardi girls, explained to me that Slonim hasidim were not prejudiced against Sefardim as the media and courts had led people to believe. “My sister, one of the Sefardi parents, chose the hasidic track for her daughter. My sister’s husband himself teaches in a hasidic boys’ school.”
Justices – practice what you preach
Abraham Waks, another young Sanz hasid from Netanya expressed consternation, shading over to bemusement, that the Supreme Court, a bastion of Ashkenazi privilege, was presenting itself as the champion of integration and wielding its power in such a clumsy way. “There is currently one Sefardi out of fifteen on the Supreme Court. Since 1948, there have been dozens and dozens of Ashkenazi justices. How many Sefardim have served on the High Court all told? Maybe four!” Making another point, he asked rhetorically, “Is the secular education system such a model of excellence and integration that they can tell us how to run our schools?” With the World Cup and Elton John’s Israel concert grabbing the headlines that day, it is no wonder that haredim have a hard time feeling true respect for secular education.
Each group has its highest priorities and exquisite sensitivities. For one group it is the army, for another group it is the flag. For haredim it is the schools. The justices are sophisticated and intelligent. They should have realized that that you do not use a sledgehammer when a pincer will do.
Some may ask, “What is wrong with girls who are strictly religious mingling with those who are more casual about religion?” There are two legitimate approaches in education: the greenhouse approach, or the open exposure approach. Some parents feel that at an impressionable age they do not want their daughters, who are brought up in a kind of protected greenhouse, to become too friendly with girls from homes where there are televisions, internet, and a less modest standard of dress. That is the outlook of the parents of the hasidic track. Other parents welcome exposure of their children to different, even contradicting, traditions and feel the risk that their children will adopt negative customs is justified by the positive side of the interaction. So two separated tracks were established in the school in order not to coerce girls who do not want to take on the hasidic stringencies and in order to give them their own space (conceptually and architecturally.) Isn’t that multiculturalism? Inclusiveness? Different strokes for different folks?
Exemplary discipline by the crowds
The respect for authority was evident in the exemplary behavior of the 120,000 haredim. Festive music blared, the fathers wore their Shabbat garments, streimels and kapotes. We heard helicopters circling above — the authorities evidently were preparing for action, which never materialized. An easy-going atmosphere prevailed. The police and paramedics were bored and had nothing to do aside from helping an occasional oldsters who fainted from the sun. Neighbors along the demonstration route put out ice water, plastic cups, and garbage receptacles. There were placards in favor of haredi education. The fathers turned themselves over to the police with dignity and good humor, albeit there were some emotional partings with their daughters.
Slonim hasidim – supersensitive about schools
A gigantic a banner stretched overhead quoting the Biblical book of Chronicles, “Al tig’u b’meshichi” which, literally means “Don’t touch my anointed ones” and warns against tampering with the most sacred values one holds. Familiarity with the history of the small Slonim Hasidic court might have helped avoid this brouhaha.
It would have taken the justices just four minutes on the internet to learn that the Slonim hasidim were among the first true Zionists. Their founding Rebbe sent his grandsons to establish a presence in the land of Israel in 1873 – a decade before what is officially called the first aliya, or wave of immigrants. Then another group of Slonim hasidim came with Rabbi Shalom Noah Barzovsky, the father of the current Rebbe. Rabbi Shalom Noah came to live in pre-State Israel in 1935. Thanks to the foresight of these leaders, there was a saving remnant of Slonim in Eretz Israel when the Lithuanian Slonim hasidim were slaughtered during the Holocaust. The group living in Israel formed the nucleus from which the Slonim leaders reconstituted the hasidic court. The main vehicle for their ability to maintain continuity was education, i.e. the boys’ and girls’ schools through which they fostered and passed along their customs and tradition of learning.
Their educational institutions are open to all who agree to abide by their school by-laws. This information about the Slonim hasidim is accessible to all. It’s not rocket science. By doing a little research and treading lightly, the Supreme Court justices might have been able to nudge the girls’ school to a little more openness. But the Court chose the sledgehammer approach on the small and formerly fragile hasidic group. That may account for most of the sympathy other religious Jews felt for the beleaguered parents.
Slonim hasidim live not only in Emanuel, but in Jerusalem, Bene Brak, and many other locations. When my son was in army during Operation Cast Lead he was hosted for a Shabbat when he was stationed guarding moshav Aluma Hazon Yehezkel in the Gaza – Gat area. This was one of the most sparkling Shabbatot he ever experienced, he said. They were outgoing, appreciative, friendly, and welcomed his entire army unit with warm hospitality. It is an injustice that the name Slonim hasidim has been mistakenly associated with “segregation.”.
No one would deny the fact that the Sefardim have very often gotten the short end of the stick since the founding of the State of Israel, both in the secular sector and the religious sector. But things have been improving, and usually not by government or court fiat. Why did the justices not choose one of the many alternative ways to skin this delicate cat? Why did they charge like bulls into a china shop, imprisoning dozens of parents of young children? Have they thereby improved Sefardi-Ashkenazi relations?
Another group that came from Netanya was led by the Sefardi leader Rabbi Moshe ben Moshe. In explaining to a non-religious interviewer why he opposed the Supreme Court’s order that upset the delicate balance between two school tracks, Rabbi Moshe said,
“Today the Court is interfering in haredi education and forcing the Emanuel parents to send their children to a school not of their liking, where the two-track system was compromised. I am demonstrating so that tomorrow the Court won’t force YOU to send your children to a haredi school or school not of your liking.”
Rabbi Eliyahu Biton, one of the several Sefardi fathers from Emanuel going to prison, addressed the demonstration in Bene Brak. His daughter Dassy was in the hasidic track of the school. He repeated what his young son had said accusingly to Dassy. Rabbi Bitton’s son had complained to his sister,
“It’s all your fault, Dassy, that Daddy is going to prison.”
Rabbi Bitton said that he smiled and corrected the boy.
“It’s not Dassy’s fault. It’s her honor and privilege to be the reason I am going to prison.”