If the recent ultra-Orthodox Charedi spat in Israel was simply about racism, I would not feel as furious as I do. Last week one hundred thousand black- and fur-hatted faithful gathered in Jerusalem to protest the Israeli High Court decision to send to jail parents of a strictly Orthodox school in the religious town of Emmanuel.
The school was founded by the Slonim Hassidim who wanted state funding but needed sixty pupils to qualify. It only had forty girls, whose parents insisted on a very strict regime. To get the rest they had to lower their standards to allow other girls, not so religious, to join. But these girls were kept segregated behind a wall in the school, for fear that their corrosive values–like sleeves only down to the elbows and pop socks in summer instead of full tights–might ruin the best!
But it was claimed that the wall was to keep Ashkenazi and Sephardi girls apart, and the High Court ordered the responsible parents to remove the offending wall. The Rebbe of Slonim, however, told them to defy the High Court and listen instead to God (his version, naturally), so the parents have repeatedly defied the High Court decision.
I hate racism with a passion. The fact is that Jewish law is and has always been so absolutely against any form of racism. No one who is a racist can possibly claim to be genuinely Orthodox. (And please do not confuse ideological exclusivity with racism, because anyone can adopt a different ideology if he wants to, but can’t change race.) There are, to my shame, Jews who are racist. It is just like any country that has laws against racial discrimination–you still have the mentally challenged who have just not yet evolved.
Go into almost any Charedi community or yeshiva nowadays and you will find a racial mix–blacks, browns, Ethiopians, or Sephardi Jews (mainly from Islamic societies), amongst the faithful. Indeed, in this particular school there were Sephardi girls, and several of the parents amongst those who defied the court and went to jail were Sephardi. So the issue cannot simply be about racism.
It is true that the Sephardic community in Israel has long complained of discrimination. Poor immigrants from the Maghreb and Yemen were treated very shabbily by the Ashkenazi elite when they arrived. It was largely Menachem Begin who first helped turn the tide. Then the creation of the Sephardi religious party “Shas” gave Sephardim real political power and clout. Things have been changing. Some of my own nieces and nephews have happily intermarried into Sephardi communities.
But if this really was a Sephardi issue why did the Sephardi “Shas” party stay shtum? It did not organize one counterdemonstration. One might argue that most Sephardi rabbis don’t want to be seen challenging religious authority because they use it just as much, themselves, as a tool of control. And if they do anything to undermine ecclesiastical omnipotence, they will lose too.
So was this just about religion? Did the High Court get it wrong? Was it just trying to find an excuse to beat up on the religious because they don’t join the army and rely on secular taxes for handouts? Wasn’t this just about some parents wanting a stricter form of Judaism than others and not wanting to be diluted? Cannot religious groups vie with each other over who is stricter if that is what they fancy, so long it doesn’t make demands on the less religious?
Most civilized societies allow religious groups to do as they please so long as they don’t harm others or break the law. Plenty of Orthodox schools around the world have their own entrance requirements. If you have a television you can’t get in, a tattoo you are out. If you belong to another Chasidic sect and you might not worship the same rebbe, don’t even try to apply.
One might even legitimately argue that a thorough Talmudic education is far more intellectually rigorous and demanding than Western school standards, but that is another issue. If Orthodox schools want to allow kids to grow double pipicks or wear tents, it is their right to choose–as it is to wear fur hats in the middle of summer and not use deodorant. They believe that God, as mediated by the Great Rabbis of the Generation, know what is right and best. They prefer to follow them rather than the mainly secular civil judges who have entirely different values.
That is their right, so long as they do not expect the state to underwrite their values. Let them simply run their own affairs and not expect the state to subsidize them. If they ask the state to support them, then they surely have to abide by the rules of the state or get out.
But in Israel political haggling allows a situation where Orthodox schools get state funding and can tell the state to mind its own business altogether. No standards, no curriculum, no inspection. Nothing. So they have got used to ignoring the outside world. And this is really all about state cash.
It is called entitlement, a kind of addiction to handouts, usually a result of overindulgent welfare. Some people believe they can ignore the law because what they do is for God or Allah or whatever. They put up schools illegally, fiddle social services, apply for fraudulent subsidies, and indulge in illegal business activities. In Israel they refuse to serve in the army. They rely on the secular and nationalist Orthodox to defend them, then have the gall to expect subsidy. And I blame Ben Gurion, and indeed Begin. They both could have changed the electoral system to stop this blackmail, but did not. Those who sow the wind, etc.
Netanyahu needs the religious to stay in power, so he will make sure they get what they ask for and too bad for the Supreme Court. Whenever there’s a cause that is trumpeted as a holy one, you can bet your bottom dollar it is really all about the cash.