“Ethnic Prejudice” Neither Ethnic Nor Prejudice

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The essay below, this week’s Am Echad Resources submission, was written for the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, which made it available to its subscribers(under a different title than the one below) and has graciously granted permission for its publication or reproduction, with due attribution, without fee.

The recent Israeli High Court ruling against parents of students in the Israeli town of Emmanuel and the ensuing massive haredi demonstration on the parents’ behalf present an opportunity to either jump to conclusions or objectively evaluate the facts.

Several Sephardi parents – Israelis of North African and Middle-Eastern backgrounds – in the town brought a lawsuit aimed at preventing other parents of students who had been studying in the local Beit Yaakov girls’ school from maintaining a new school the latter group had established. The court ruled that the new school was born of illegal ethnic discrimination and, later, that the “new school” parents’ subsequent second choice – to send their daughters to a school in another city – was also forbidden them. The court fined those parents for each day they refused to comply with its order to return their children to the Emmanuel Beit Yaakov, threatened them with prison and then made good on the threat. On June 17, the parents, wearing their Sabbath clothes, were held aloft and escorted to the prison by a peaceful crowd of tens of thousands, singing and dancing, in a demonstration of support for the soon-to-be prisoners.

What gives here? Well there are two versions. First, the one presented by most media:

Racial prejudice lay at the root of the parents’ desire for a separate school for their children and their refusal to abide by the court ruling. The large number of supporters who turned out on their behalf reflected a general haredi Ashkenazic disdain for the “segregation” of Sephardim.

Version two:

The jailed parents sought only to preserve the religious standards the Emmanuel school had maintained for many years. Changing demographics over the years in Emmanuel brought an influx of families with less stringent standards of Jewish observance, dress and insularity (including things like use of the internet and personal messaging, which are shunned by many haredim for religious reasons) than the original residents of the town. Some of the long-time residents with school-age children saw a need for two different educational institutions to service Emmanuel’s girls. That most of the new families happened to be of Sephardi heritage played no role at all in that decision.

The first version was endorsed by Israel’s High Court, which pronounced that the new school evidenced prejudice and ordered the parents who had founded it to return their children to the Emmanuel Beit Yaakov.

Those parents, however, insisted, and insist, that the court finding was wrong, that their choice was a matter of religious conscience. They refused to be coerced to send their children to a school of the court’s choice and readily went to jail for their civil disobedience. The larger haredi community, wary of the High Court in the best of circumstances and seeing it as having ignored clear facts in this case, rallied to the parents’ side.

Which version reflects the truth?

There is no doubt that discrimination against Sephardim exists in Israeli society, and that it is pernicious and must be fought wherever it appears. The question about the Emmanuel issue, though, is whether such discrimination – or, rather, parents’ concerns for the tenor of their children’s educations – motivated the establishment of the new school.

Several simple facts, although oddly absent from most news reports, seem to point in one direction: More than a quarter of the girls who had been enrolled in the new school were… Sephardim. And there were Ashkenazi girls who remained in the original Beit Yaakov too. What is more, not one applicant to the new school was rejected. Any girl willing to abide by the school’s standards was welcomed, regardless of her ethnic background. The “segregation,” it seems, consisted of nothing more than two schools offering two different sets of religious standards.

The High Court emperor’s nakedness may have been most succinctly voiced by one of the parents who went to jail, as he was held aloft by the crowd and a reporter’s microphone put before him. “Are you a Sephardi?” asked the off-camera voice, its owner having apparently noticed the man’s complexion.

“Yes,” he replied, “A Yemenite.” Then, with a wry smile at the absurdity of it all, he added “A Yemenite is being taken in [to prison] for racism. Ata meivin? [You understand?]”

And yet the headlines blared on, using charged phrases like “ethnic prejudice” and “segregation,” and portraying the jailed parents and their supporters as seeking to discriminate against Sephardim, invoking, as did the court, American blacks’ struggle for civil rights in the 1950s.

They got it perfectly backward. The haredi parents and marchers were championing their rights as parents to educate their children as they wish. They, if anyone, are the Martin Luther Kings here. The court, sad to say, assumed the Bull Connor role.

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20 Responses

  1. Menachem Lipkin says:

    Contrary to your post, Harvard was quite explicit that it had a Jew quota.

    You’re going to have to duke it out with Rabbi Adlerstein. The information below is from his article a couple of weeks ago.

    In 1922, Lowell proposed a quota on Jewish admission. Intense public scrutiny – and an outcry from other minority groups in Boston like the Irish and African-Americans – caused the attempt to fail. Lowell did not give up. While Harvard had previously selected students from all parts of the country as long as they finished in the top seventh of their class, Lowell pushed for the consideration of letters from teachers and interviewers that would report on “character” and “aptitude.” He knew that they would also include important biographical details that could be used to weed out the undesirables. He was successful, and by the time he stepped down in 1933, the Jewish population at Harvard had declined to 10%.

    Come to think of it, this sounds more like what the Slonimers were doing than I originally thought!

  2. dovid 2 says:

    eddie: “Don’t buy the Haaretz hype.”

    Don’t go for easy targets, eddie, like Haaretz, the supreme court, Fatach, or Black September. In the great scheme of the things, they don’t really count.

    “They spilled our blood ..” I cannot confirm whether this was made in the course of the Haaretz interview, but it reflects a statement of fact which should be screamed out loud, and not by Haaretz, but by us.

    Haaretz and the supreme court don’t worry me. What does worry me is that the Charedi leader’s office states in public that there is no discrimination against the sefardim in the Charedi world and brings learning of the Shulchan Aruch and Rema in the yeshivos as evidence to his claim. I have been waiting for someone with weight within the Charedi world to challenge him and bang his chest saying ‘chatanu’. Even without such confession, it’s clear that if that person truly made that statement, then all the pronouncements in the name of Rabbi Elyashiv are actually his spin and as such not to be trusted since (a) he filters the news that reach Rabbi Elyashiv from the outside world, bearing his interpretation of those events, and (b) he filters Rabbi Elyashiv’s rulings that reach us.

  3. Tal S. Benschar says:

    <i.Rabbi Shafran’s basis for his search for the “truth” falls flat.

    That 25% of the girls were Sfardi does not prove there was no discrimination. It could, in fact, argue the opposite. In the early part of the 20th century many top universities, such as Harvard, had Jewish quotas. They limited the number of Jews allowed. It wasn’t done explicitly and since some Jews were admitted these universities were always able to hide under the fig-leaf of saying that we have x% Jews.

    Contrary to your post, Harvard was quite explicit that it had a Jew quota.

    The school in Emmanuel might also have a quota or it might not. You would have to produce evidence that it does. The fact that 25% are Sefardic means that Sefardic girls were not categorically barred from the school. That already takes it out of the worst form of racism as practice in the American South up to the 1960s.

    As a second proof, R. Shafran says that, ‘Any girl willing to abide by the school’s standards was welcomed, regardless of her ethnic background.” While this sounds quite magnanimous, the details reveal a reality that is less so. After all, Harvard also hid behind such claims. Let’s look at the “standards” that were demanded. There was a requirement to Daven in the Ashkenaz Nusach, in school and at home. There was a requirement that the girls not associate with other girls, again at school and at home. OK, you say, standards are standards, a school needs uniformity and to “protect” their students. However, one of the most pernicious requirements was that the girls not visit with non-religious relatives. Now this is a whole different ballgame. Since a large number of the families are Balaei Teshuva this requirement effectively excludes them. After all who’s going to agree not to visit their grandparents, no matter how “frum” they are?

    First of all, as noted, Harvard did not have such criteria, they had an express Jew quota.

    Second, what you are saying, in effect, is that you do not like these standards and consider them too onerous. That may or may not be, but what does that have to do with ethnic discrmination? An Ashkenazi baal-teshuvah would be shut out by these criteria as well as a Sephardi one.

    IMO, these criteria, while very insular, are not beyond the pale, and are defensible if your purpose is to create a Chassidic/Charedi school.

    This is the danger I posted about several months ago. In the guise of combatting “discrimination,” (i.e. racial or ethinc discrimination”) the Courts are empowering themselves to decide what are legitimate religious standards and what are not.

    Finally, the fact that the Sfardi parents of the accepted children went to jail also proves nothing. The very same rationale that allowed the Sfardi parents to resolve the cognitive dissonance involved in suppressing their heritage to get their girls into the Slonim school in the first place would force them to stand with the Slonim parents in their defiance of the court. Not unlike so many Jewish Americans who changed their last names and chucked their Jewish heritage to “make it” in American society.

    Once again, you have shifted the argument from “ethnic discrimination” to “preserving heritage.” The fact that there are Sfardim who sent their daughters to the school and who even went to jail for it proves that ethnic descent is not the issue, rather religious standards and customs is the issue.

    None of this “proves” there was racial discrimination, but it does prove that reasonable people could have come to that conclusion. And it certainly makes the court look much more well attired than R. Shafran would have us believe.

    No, it makes the Court look like it engages in sophistry and intellectual dishonesty to get to where it wanted to get: deligitmizing Charedim in general and these group of Chassidim in particular.

    The bottom line is that the Slonimer are willing to accept all Jews into their school, provided they accept Slonimer customs and usage. Hardly broad-minded, but hardly ethnic/racial discrimination.

  4. Yirmi says:

    Some of the comments here sound to me like broad brushes of the “Chaddisishe” community, labeling them as racist and stupid. On Tisha Bav, when I cry over the Beit Hamidkash’s destruction, I will think of some of the comments above — and not wonder at all why Mashiach isn’t here.

    And, no, I’m not a chassid.

  5. Mike S. says:

    Shmuel:
    I have no problem with the Chassidshe wishing to be more insular than I, but the Torah requires them to do so without mistreating or speaking ill of others.

    Perhaps there are those who could have intervened before the matter got to the secular courts. It would have been far better. Kikar Shabbat quoted the Sefadi Rav in Emmanuel:
    גידלנו בעמנואל בנות לתפארת, ובאו סלונים והוציאו דיבתנו רעה”, אמר. “לא היה לנו ברירה, אז
    פנינו להמן” (בג”ץ. ד”כ
    I am not sure any more need be said.

  6. Yehoshua Friedman says:

    I think this should be an occasion of deep introspection in the Chasidische community in particular. Chasidus was established, as I understand it not from reading Haaretz, as a way for simple Jews to connect to Hashem. It was a reaction to both suffering from without and social stratification from within. There were separate shuls for people on the basis of their professions and on the basis of their level of learning. Chasidus came along and said that a simple Jew should not stay simple (after all, learning is very important), but he should be loved and respected as a Jew with a Jewish soul and have the opportunity to advance further than his current state. If Hillel or Rabbi Akiva had been in 17th-18th century Poland, would the rabbis of the Chevras Shas shul have let them in, or would the burly shamash have bodily thrown them out the door? Of course this happened in the time of Rabban Gamliel as well, but there was criticism then and there should also be now.

  7. Ak says:

    Hi,
    If you live in Israel as I do and mix with sepharadim ask them if there is discrimination in the frum chareidi society.
    They suffer from the quota system as one Rosh Kollel put it – motzi’im et ha’mitz ud she’mekablim et bincha.

    I agree with the sentiments above that we have our values all wrong. The problem is not the press or be’gatz , it is frum Jews who don’t know how to live with others and accept others who may be different. Rabeinu Yeruchem says the problem is that the machlokes was le sheim shamayim and the neiyah of Tzidkus blinds people from the real issues. The medrash says – Bakeish shalom verodfeihu and not mitzvos.

    This morning a compromise was ratified in cout. The next 3 days all kids will be learning and listening to shiurim on ahavas yisroel. I think the parents on both sides should be in the classroom and more important displaying ahavas yisroel.

    I don’t know how this machlokes will make a chiloni bussiness man more likely to give a chareidi man a job.

    AK

  8. Chareidi Leumi says:

    >“There is no doubt that discrimination against Sephardim exists in Israeli society, and that it is pernicious and must be fought wherever it appears.”<

    This makes it sound like there is no specific CHAREIDI discrimination problem. I am sorry to say but secular society and to an even greater extend the dati leumi community have pretty much distroyed most traces of institutional discrimination and at least in the dati leumi world, social discrimination has pretty much been wiped out as well. This is not the case in the chareidi world where both social and institutional discrimination are rampant. Where shiudchim across ethnic lines are still very rare and where yeshivas are either sephardic or ashkenazy but all most never "just a yeshiva"

  9. Menachem Lipkin says:

    Rabbi Shafran’s basis for his search for the “truth” falls flat.

    That 25% of the girls were Sfardi does not prove there was no discrimination. It could, in fact, argue the opposite. In the early part of the 20th century many top universities, such as Harvard, had Jewish quotas. They limited the number of Jews allowed. It wasn’t done explicitly and since some Jews were admitted these universities were always able to hide under the fig-leaf of saying that we have x% Jews.

    As a second proof, R. Shafran says that, ‘Any girl willing to abide by the school’s standards was welcomed, regardless of her ethnic background.” While this sounds quite magnanimous, the details reveal a reality that is less so. After all, Harvard also hid behind such claims. Let’s look at the “standards” that were demanded. There was a requirement to Daven in the Ashkenaz Nusach, in school and at home. There was a requirement that the girls not associate with other girls, again at school and at home. OK, you say, standards are standards, a school needs uniformity and to “protect” their students. However, one of the most pernicious requirements was that the girls not visit with non-religious relatives. Now this is a whole different ballgame. Since a large number of the families are Balaei Teshuva this requirement effectively excludes them. After all who’s going to agree not to visit their grandparents, no matter how “frum” they are?

    Finally, the fact that the Sfardi parents of the accepted children went to jail also proves nothing. The very same rationale that allowed the Sfardi parents to resolve the cognitive dissonance involved in suppressing their heritage to get their girls into the Slonim school in the first place would force them to stand with the Slonim parents in their defiance of the court. Not unlike so many Jewish Americans who changed their last names and chucked their Jewish heritage to “make it” in American society.

    None of this “proves” there was racial discrimination, but it does prove that reasonable people could have come to that conclusion. And it certainly makes the court look much more well attired than R. Shafran would have us believe.

  10. Tzurah says:

    Shmuel –

    I believe (and I think you do too) that the level of sectarian isolation that is the norm for many Chasidim in Israel, despite its potential spiritual and communal benefits, is on balance damaging to Jews – Spiritually damaging to Jews raised in such an environment, and damaging to Jewish society as a whole.

    I feel that frum Jews who feel that a higher level of openness to Jewish diversity is desirable should be unafraid to say that our shitta is correct, and going too far toward sectarian isolation is a big mistake and a danger to klal Yisrael.

  11. E-man says:

    Based on the fact that Rav EFRATI said there is no discrimination, I would assume there is a huge problem in the Charaidi world, where many admit it is a HUGE problem, but I digress. You can turn people down, without OFFICIALLY turning them down. There are ways to discourage poeple from applying and the such. But, who knows what really happened here. What I am upset about is a rally where one of the main speakers told an outright lie according to anyone and everyone you talk to. Rav Efrati, Rav Elyashiv’s spokesperson declared there is NO discrimination AT ALL in the Charaidi community. WHAT?? Why was that part of a rally about just wanting to be able to send your children to a frum school????

  12. eddie says:

    Mr. Contrarian,

    If you’re getting your “truth” from Haaretz, I think you are more than a little gullible. If there ever was a paper that liked to put frum people in the words possible light, it’s that one.

    Besides, even if there are many parents in the regular school who are very religious, it doesn’t mean there aren’t other parents who are not religious, or girls from any of those families who the hassidic people feel their own kids are adversely affected by.

    Don’t buy the Haaretz hype. And don’t be a contrarian just for the sake of being a contrarian.

  13. shmuel says:

    Kennth Levy:

    I feel much like you do. But I don’t think you’re being fair. The sort of things that some of the girls in the non-Hassidic part of the school were “into” were internet/personal messaging and (probably, though I can’t say for sure) tv and movies. That might not bother you or me but I can understand a parent who wants his young daughter isolated from hose sorts of things. I don’t know if he’s right, but he HAS the right, I think.

    E-man:

    If you read the posting carefully, and others on Cross Currents, you will see that no girl who wanted to attend the Hassidic school and was willing to take on the stringencies was turned down. That was the conclusion of an independent report commissioned by the court itself. So quotas had nothing to do with what happened.

    Mike S.

    Maybe it was wrong of them to try the mechitza (or maybe it was a clumsy but not bad-intentioned attempt). But I don’t think any of us should be “paskening” what ono’at devarim is here (or implying that we know). Can we be a little more generous toward the Hassidim here, even if their way is not ours?

  14. BG says:

    It may not be prejudice, but is definitely Ga’vah. This notion that someone’s standards are not stringent enough even when they conform perfectly to halacha has become widespread througout the frum community. It’s akin to the rightwing demagogues in the U.S. decrying moderate Republicans as RINOs (Republican in Name Only), and shaming their opinions and beliefs.
    I am not sure why we accept this. Or why we feel fine to say that while there is racism in the frum community, it’s even worse in the non-frum community. Shouldn’t we have higher standards? Isn’t that the point of being B’ei Torah? Why can’t we mobilize hundereds of thousands of Chareidim to march for that? Now that would be a REAL Kiddush Hashem.

  15. The Contarian says:

    There has been no independent evidence or confirmation of the fact that the Sephardi girls and their families are less religious or stringent than their Ashkenazi counterparts.

    Eveyone – including Shas MKs to their great emarrasment has accepted the word of the Slonimers without once checking into tha matter.

    That is prejudice. But the truth is slowly starting to come out.

    From a story about a meeting between Shas MKs and the parents of the girls in the Sepahrdi track in Haaretz.

    They spilled our blood and you remained silent,” said a devoutly ultra-Orthodox father, Amnon Assaf, whose daughter studies in the general track, to the Shas people. “They said Sabbath-desecrators? They are talking about me, me. They spilled our blood in the media, everywhere, and you kept quiet. The spilling of blood is also on you, because you kept quiet,” he accused them.

    Afterward, one of the Knesset members told Haaretz: “They came to the meeting, all of them with beards down to their navel. Ultra-Orthodox. I was really very surprised. I expected newly religious people in jeans, people who aren’t prepared to accept the definitions of the Orthodox – newly religious people who go around like secular people. Suddenly they show up, completely ultra-Orthodox. I thought just a minute, what’s going on here?”

  16. Mike S. says:

    Does not the Torah forbid us from treating others (at an absolute minimum, other frum Jews) in a degrading fashion? Does not putting a mechitzah in the playground to prevent some of the girls from mixing with the “better” girls, constitute a violation of the prohibition of Ona’at devarim? Does a desire for complete insularity, or chumrot in dress and so on permit one to violate the issur of ona’at devarim? It may matter to a secular court whether this treatment was the result of ethnic discrimination or so-called religious standards, but halacha forbids the treatment meted out to the other girls either way. It is a shame that a secular court seems to be needed to demand religious Jews to treat each other to the standard the Torah requires, when rabbonim either can’t or won’t. The gemara of Kamtza u’Var Kamtza ought to remind us how serious a matter it is when rabbis stand by while someone is being humiliated.

  17. E-man says:

    So, if you agree that there is discrimination, why did Rav Efrati declare that there is no discrimination? Also, the fact that there are quotas means there are sephardim in the schools, but that is still discrimination. The argument that “This can’t be discrimination, there are sefardim involved” is a ridiculous argument. Quotas=discrimination, do you deny this? Yes a quarter of the school was sefardim, oddly, that is close to the quota of most ashkenazi organizations for sephardim. At least according to Rabbi Dovid Landesman.

  18. Kenneth Levy says:

    While I can certainly (and with a deep sense of relief) accept that the situation in Emmanuel was not based on any ethnic prejudice, but rather was an expression of different levels of stringencies, I am still left with a very bitter taste. Kindly read this opening paragraph from the Israeli court.

    Facts: The Beit Yaakov Girls’ School in Immanuel is a recognized unofficial school that operates under a licence from the Ministry of Education and is subsidized by the state. In 2007 changes were made to the school, and a new “Hassidic track” was introduced alongside the “general track.” These tracks were completely separate from one another, and the new “Hassidic track” was housed in a separate wing of the school, with a separate playground, a separate teachers’ room, a wall separating the two tracks and a different uniform from the one worn by girls in the “general track.” Thus the school was effectively split into two schools.

    Assuming these facts to be true, I am hard pressed to find sympathy for the proponents of the “Hassidic Track”. Do they have the right to educate their children as they see fit, within the basic understandings of providing an education? Of course they do. Do they have the right to keep their children from whatever they deem to be inappropriate influences? Certainly. Is it reasonable for them to expect sympathy from the broader Orthodox community for these desires? Absolutely.

    It should be said, however, that those answers are all based on acting in a responsible, reasonable and respectful manner. However….

    If you feel that girls from Shomer Shabbos homes that don’t adhere to your stringencies in areas such as tznius and insularity are such a danger that a complete separation is required to the point of erecting a wall, well…..that’s just not going to get the same level of sympathy. Walls project a bit of a bad image, a bit too extreme. If you feel that a Bas Yisroel who, while Frum, does not comport to your standards is such a clear and present danger that a separate playground is needed…gee, isn’t that more than a little cruel? (Imagine it. Children at an age to use a playground are being portrayed as so toxic that they can’t even use the same swing set!) If you believe that the Yiddishe Tochter who comes from a home that’s different from yours is so dangerous to your daughter that it is better to pay heavy fines and serve time in jail than have them possibly come in contact…. Wow. That’s just not something that I can muster any sympathy for.

    Especially when I think for a moment and realize that you’d be reacting this way if it was my daughter.

  19. Joe Hill says:

    Well said Reb Avi.

    Keep up the good work.

  20. Bob Miller says:

    This article said, “There is no doubt that discrimination against Sephardim exists in Israeli society, and that it is pernicious and must be fought wherever it appears.”

    Rabbi Shafran,

    Let’s momentarily put the current battle and locale aside and look at voluntary (= not in response to government pressure) efforts to combat this discrimination:

    What has been done and what is being done by haredi organizations and communities to fight this discrimination “wherever it appears”? Have these initiatives been effective to date? If not, what is being done to achieve better results?