by Doron Beckerman
Yoav Lalloum is no newcomer to the anti-discrimination scene. His Noar Kahalachah organization was established in 2002 in order to eradicate the ongoing rejection and humiliation of Sefardi applicants to Ashkenazi-run schools, ostensibly on religious grounds.
There is no question that, as the various writers here have acknowledged, racially motivated discrimination can be found in Ashkenazi Charedi society, and that some school principals refuse to follow guidelines, sometimes even directives, from Charedi Torah leaders to increase their Sefardic student body. Yoav Lalloum, in claiming racial prejudice, undoubtedly has a leg to stand on.
But is that what happened in Emanuel? As in most cases, there is probably some truth on both sides of the debate, but I am convinced that the underlying issue was never ethnic prejudice. A reasoned analysis of the facts yields that there is indeed a significant number of Sefardi families who are, or can be, a negative influence. The Sefardi mother who exhaled a plume a cigarette smoke into the TV camera, claiming her daughter was not accepted solely because of ethnic prejudice, is an image burnished into the collective mind of many observers. There are also many Sefardi families who do not want their kids with the other Sefardim, but both types of families want their kids in the Beis Yaakov. The Sefardi Bnei Torah lacked the funds, or the initiative, so they remained with the status quo of a single track.
The Slonimers all did not want their kids with the negative influence ones, and had no reason to remain with them, so they decided to open up their own Beis Yaakov track, which was approved by the Education Ministry, and designate it Beis Yaakov Chassidi. The Sefardi Bnei Torah saw an option of stricter standards and separation from the other families without intra-Sefardi strife, and, as individual families, they started applying to the Slonimer track.
Question 1: How many families that applied to Chassidi were rejected? Some reports say that none were, others have individual accounts of rejection. Which is true? I suspect that nobody was rejected on the basis of accepting the regulations, but there were families of Sefardi Bnei Torah who would have loved to attend but found the regulations anti-Sefardi and would not accede. They demanded a relaxation of the regulations, were rebuffed, and claimed racism.
Question 2: What did the Supreme Court want – a dismantling of the Beis Yaakov Chassidi or a relaxing of the regulations? It seems clear that they were pushing for the first option, and that is why the Sefardi Bnei Torah went to jail. They preferred following the regulations to sending their daughters to an environment they considered unsuitable. Claiming that these Sefardim are mindless, token Uncle Toms, is blatantly prejudiced and downright insulting. The Supreme Court seriously overplayed their hand and lent credence to the claim that they themselves are not interested in ending the discrimination, but demanding that no higher standards be implemented, and interfering with parents’ rights to educate their kids as they see fit. Once Justice Levy framed the issue as the superiority of the Supreme Court over Rabbis’ decisions, the die was cast.
Question 3 – Do the Slonimers have a right to set standards to the track/school that they started that would enable them to maintain their Chinuch Chassidi? Were they to completely do away with any uniquely Askenazi, or Chassidic, elements in their regulations, they might be 70% or 80% Sefardi, and they would not be able to educate their daughters with a Chassidic flavor. Is this racism, elitism, or running an institution you started and not allowing it to lose its identity? I think Slonim overplayed their hand here in narrowly sectioning off the publicly funded Beis Yaakov, but, on the other hand, the Sefardi Bnei Torah put themselves in a situation of being reliant on the Ashkenazim to provide them with the education they wanted. The institution of higher standards was begging to be established, was there for the grabbing, and Slonim grabbed it. I honestly don’t think they were being racist, just wanting to maintain their Chassidei Slonim track. They’d get swallowed up if they defanged the regulations.
What vexes many observers, though, is why there is any cap at all, official or unspoken, on Sefardi enrollment, anywhere. Why is there a 30% numerus clausus in so many institutions? Especially to the American observer, this issue is begging to be resolved.
One of the fora where this matter is aired is the Knesset Education Committee. The minutes from an October 2006 meeting introduce a wide array of people involved in Charedi Chinuch, including the appropriate personnel from the Education Ministry, Chinuch Atzmai, assorted MKs, and Yoav Lalloum. Some interesting points emerging from that meeting bear noting, but I want to focus on the statements of two MKs – Chaim Amsalem of Shas, and Moshe Gafni of Yahadut Hatorah.
Amsalem: “I know this problem exists, alive and breathing. It is not always because the girl is Sefardi or from a Sefardi family… but I understand and feel… that they’re looking for the “prestigious” families by the Sefardim, and they are accepted easily, and the families that are less “prestigious”, and they have it more difficult, unless they activate pressure and connections… Harav Lalloum said earlier that he points an accusatory finger toward a political party that sits in this house, he meant Shas, because what is there to say? The heads of Shas and their Rabbanim, send their children only to Ashkenazi institutions, because it is important. Because afterward the Shidduch will be easier, because it is has more esteem to it. That’s the truth… those who are to blame are the Sefardim… I think the greatest, most important Mitzvah that the Ashkenazi institutions could do, obviously by directive from the Gedolim, would be to say – our Sefardi colleagues, just as by the Chassidim, Belz have Belz, Gur has Gur, the Sefardim have the Sefardim and we’ll end the problems. Work it out amongst yourselves.”
Chairman Melchior: “Do you really want it that way, Rabbi Amsalem?”
Amsalem: “Yes… we have a wonderful, important heritage, a different path than that which has been imparted, and is imparted, by the institutions identified with our Ashkenazi brethren… The problem begins with the Sefardim themselves, they have an aspiration, a desire, to be elitist, to send their sons and daughters to Ashkenazi institutions. So continue this, Sefardim, and this is what you will look like.”
Simply stated, the Sefardim want a ‘separate but equal’ arrangement. Why? Why not just fully integrate the schools?
Now let’s hand the mike (to the extent they are necessary as an amplifying mouthpiece in an Israeli Knesset committee discussion) to MK Gafni:
“There are three primary components that comprise Charedi Jewry, the Chassidic, the Lithuanian, and the Sefardic. Why is this even a topic of discussion in Charedi Chinuch? Because Charedi Chinuch, as opposed to the Mamlacht-Dati (government-backed religious) and Mamlachti (secular), is very much built on tradition, customs, prayers, and all of these things are no small component of educating the children. That is the reality… when the Charedi community was small, there was no problem at all, because everyone got along. Once the Charedi community grew and there was no room… everyone created their own institutions. The Chassidim made their own institutions, rightfully so, they have enough sons and daughters to make institutions based on their parents’ tradition. The Sefardi community created their own party, and after it created a party for itself, it created its own educational framework. An educational framework recognized by law…
What happened is, that while the Chassidic schools developed, and every Chassid sends to his own Chassidic sect’s school, based on their parents’ tradition, the heads and leaders and Rabbis etc., of the Sefardim who are represented by 12 MKs, while the Lithuanians are barely represented by two, send their sons and daughters to Chinuch Atzmai institutions.
And then the problem arose, a problem that I do not see a solution to at present… there is no room for another class. In Elad there is a Maayan Chinuch Torani (Shas) school, a school based on Sefadi traditions, which is a recognized unofficial institution (like Chinuch Atzmai)… but the Ashkenazim have no other solution. You cannot tell an Ashkenazi – go to Maayan Chinuch Torani. The Sefardim…. Why do you not send to Maayan Chinuch Torani?
MK Melchior: Maybe because they think the school is better.
Gafni: Better, but there is no room… If they would listen to me… the Charedi schools would be zonal, but then there would be a problem, because if there will be zonal schools and everyone accepts everyone, there won’t be any justification for the existence of Shas. Why? Because what basis will the party have? Fighting over Shabbos? We’re the same. If the basis is the war regarding a Charedi weltanschauung, we and Shas are the same thing. The justification for the existence of Shas is opening educational institutions, where the schools are aligned with the Sefardi public… In my assessment, there are those who would disrupt this approach, which would be a true solution for me. There is no ethnic discrimination, there is a problem of technical distributions of schools, and there are many who will not allow (changing) that.”
The issue is, then, that there is a fully legal ‘separate but equal’ school distribution built in to the political system. There isn’t unlimited space in the government funded schools, far from it. The Charedi schools are underfunded relative to the official schools. One can accept students, in a color-blind policy, based on merit. But that would leave weaker students with no place to go. The only fair solution is to determine who has another place to go, and who does not. The Ashkenazim cannot attend the Maayan Chinuch Torani schools. The regulations for these schools include – Sefardi prayer and pronunciation (sounds familiar?), Sefardi Halachic decisions, and a paid subscription to the Shas mouthpiece, Yom L’yom. So it might even be justified to accept no Sefardi students until all Ashkenazi applicants are accounted for. But that would certainly pass no smell test, so it is capped at 30%, which is about the highest number you can have without creating a school within the school.
Creating unaffiliated Charedi schools might sound like a great solution, but there are too many people who stand to lose – those Ashkenazi principals who enjoy their fiefdoms and do not follow the directives of the Gedolim; Shas, because they lose their raison d’etre; and the Chassidim, who want their own schools for each sect. They would have to move into completely cloistered enclaves. 100% private funding of all Charedi institutions is not viable.
There are no easy solutions here.
[Rabbi Doron Beckerman, a mechanech in Israel, frequently appears on Cross-Currents as a guest columnist.]