Tuesday, May 04, 2010

Girls discriminated 'on grounds of culture, not skin'

The ongoing affair of the Beit Yaakov girls' school in Emmanuel probably deserves some comment. The story so far: at the beginning of April, the school was fined for 'discriminating' against Sephardi girls. In the latest twist, parents are being accused of 'contempt of court for setting up a separate, privately-funded education stream for 'Ashkenazi' pupils. (Except that, of 74 pupils, 25 are Sephardi. Go figure):

Haaretz reports:

"The parents, with the backing of the Ashkenazi Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) leadership, are challenging the court's authority to intervene in policies at the Beit Yaakov school, which is part of the independently run but state-funded Hinuch Atzma'i ("Independent Education") school system. The parents and school administrators contend that the separate classes are due not to the students' different ethnic backgrounds, but to their different educational needs, which primarily stem from their different levels of religious observance.

Three weeks ago, the High Court ordered the Hinuch Atzma'i network to pay a NIS 5,000 fine for every day that it continues refusing to integrate the school.

At the same time, it scheduled today's exceptional hearing, to which about 130 parents and teachers from the so-called "Hasidic" Ashkenazi track have been summoned to explain why they should not also be ruled in contempt of the court's earlier ruling.

Meanwhile, representatives of the Noar Kahalacha nonprofit organization, which filed the initial High Court petition, will use the hearing to seek continued sanctions for failure to comply with the integration order.

Avraham Luria, whose wife is one of the teachers who will be attending today's hearing, insisted that the separation of the students is not based on ethnic origin. The Hasidic track is simply for girls from more rigorously observant families, he said - and in fact, of the 74 students in this track, 25 are Sephardi, he added. This track is now entirely funded from private contributions, he said.

Predictably, the leftwing and anti-Israel blogosphere has spun this affair as an example of 'discrimination on grounds of skin colour'. While there is never any justification for racism, cultural differences seem to be the main factor here - Sephardim have always been more open to outside influences, while religious 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 eastern Europe. Had Maimonides been alive today, he might well have used the internet and watched TV.

In the Beit Yaakov case, the Ashkenazi parents' main gripe seems to be that the Sephardi girls, by and large, are not religious enough for their standards. It may all boil down to something as basic as whether the girls are being corrupted by watching TV.

Let's not pretend that Ashkenazim and Sephardim follow the same religious customs: they don't.
Ashkenazi orthodox schools do have the right to give priority to children from similar backgrounds and traditions.

At the very root of the problem is this: the Sephardi orthodox simply do not have an educational infrastructure of their own. Although Shas has improved matters, in my view, Sephardim are still suffering the effects of the destruction of their orthodox heritage in Arab lands. That's why Sephardim have adopted Yiddish and Ashkenazi orthodox customs - they have become 'lithuanianised', as Shmuel Trigano puts it. What we need are more schools teaching Sephardi orthodoxy, but from which Ashkenazim would not be excluded, of course.


Anonymous said...

Us Sephardim/Mizrahim didn't just lose our cultural and religious institutions in the Arab and Islamic lands we were forced to abandon. This process also took place within Israel. Let us not forget that. It's an unfortunate reality that many of our grandparents and parents encountered real racism and discrimination by our Ashkenazi brethren who had the advantage of being more established in Eretz Yisrael, but who also had their own notions of what it was to be a Jew or more accurately, the new Israeli Jew. There were pressures for us to abandon our "backward" "Arab" ways which we acquired in the galuth (forgetting that we were indigenous populations that never left the Middle-East. I daresay Avraham avinu would have more in common with us than Litvaks) but we weren't completely helpless or without agency because many of us made conscious (and unfortunate) choices of letting go of our traditions and heritage and even the way we spoke Hebrew in order to fit in. There was a lot of shame tied to speaking Arabic, perceived as the language of the "enemy" or being too "Eastern." But some of us were steadfast and tried to preserve what we could. By the same token, many Ashkenazim also underwent similar pressures to abandon their Yiddishe shtetl ways, so it was a complex process. This whole Emmanuel affair might be complex and yes, it may have to do with real differences in traditions and outlooks between Sephardim and Ashkenazim, but it would be quite naive to deny the hierarchical and discriminatory factors at play.

Eliyahu Heskel

Anonymous said...

And just to add, there is no reason why we should not have our independent Sephardi institutions. In fact, it is our obligation to restore our rich heritage to its rightful place. Millions of our Ashkenazi brothers and sisters perished in the holocaust (as did thousands of Sephardim from Greece and the Balkans for example) and a large proportion of their institutions and social organization, but yet they still could perpetuate their ways in Israel. We just need better organization, more empowerment and less corrupt leadership

E. Heskel

Anonymous said...

But in the end of the day we must not forget that Kol Yisrael Arevim Zeh Bazeh
All of Israel is responsible for one another

E. Heskel

bataween said...

There is much truth in your first comment - there was discrimination in the secular field and prejudice against Arabic, but as you also say,Eliyahu, Yiddish speakers were also made to abandon their language as Israel tried to create the new Hebrew-speaking Israeli. But I think it is generally recognised that things have changed since the 1950s and Sephardi and Mizrahi culture is 'in'.
Every wave of immigrants looks down on subsequent waves, and the Sephardim of the 1950s and 60s are now the 'old-timers'.
Religious culture is something else and I agree with you that more empowerment, better orgnaisation, less corruption and of course MONEY is needed to rebuild the Sephardi educational structure.