Sunday, April 11, 2010

Tradition, Condescension, and Discrimination

There is a major blowup in Israel that involves the ability of Sephardi children to attend the Charedi Ashkenazi School system. It involves the Charedi city of Emmanuel where Sephardi girls are being barred from attending a Beis Yaakov School. Beis Yaakov is the primary Charedi school system for Ashkenazi girls.

The Israeli Supreme court ruled that the school may not discriminate in this way. But that Beis Yaakov did not enforce that order. Parents decided not to send their children. In response the court has cited the school with contempt, subpoenaed those parents who have refused to send their children, and fined the school 5000 NIS each day that the court ruling is not enforced.

This has prompted an outcry by Charedi leaders both religious and political. Rav Elyashiv has reportedly called for a protest. One rabbinic leader- the Slonimer Rebbe – has called for defying the order to the point of being jailed – offering to be the first to do so!

I understand that there are legitimate Chinuch concerns on the part of the Ashkenazi parents. They want their children to learn Ashkenazi customs – not Sephardi ones - some of which differ drastically. If Sephardim become a major demographic in an Ashkenazi school, Sephardi customs will become a part of the curriculum. These parents feel – with some justification – that they want to send their children to a school that will teach only their own customs. They do not want the confusion that may result by teaching two sets of customs in the school.

On the other hand it cannot be denied that discrimination exists in spades in the Ashkenazi Charedi community against Sephardim. It clearly does. I have seen it and heard it in private conversations with many of them during my visits to Israel. Of course this prejudice is not exclusive to Charedim. Ashkenazi prejudice against Sephardim exists in both the religious and non religious worlds there.

As it affects this case it is about Charedi prejudice. In my view Charedim ought to have a higher standard than secular Jews since they represent the Torah world.

So I have to ask what the true motivation here is. Is it really about Chinuch? Or is it about prejudice and condescension? Based on my experience I would have to say it is probably a bit of both but mostly it is about the latter.

Bearing all this in mind I should mention a conversation I had with a Charedi Posek the last time I was in Israel. He told me about a Beis Yaakov nearby his home where a very popular Menahelet – a female principal - refused to register any Sephardi children. She was so certain of her tenure and popularity that she flatly refused to listen to those Baalei Batim - lay leaders in her school - who did not approve of that policy. She firmly believed that the Charedi Gedolim were on her side. She was dismissive and intransigent!

The Baalei Batim went to Rav Elyashiv – and told him the situation. He told them that they should take away her keys and fire her. When she was told about it - she quickly did a ‘180’ and started registering Sephardi children.

Several things emerge from this true story. Rav Elayshiv’s attitude here is contradicted by the reported attitude he had on the Emmanuel school. It also seems that the motivation barring Sephardi girls was plain old fashioned prejudice. And it shows that not all Charedim have this attitude.

The question is - what is it that is really going on here? Is it indeed true - as reported - that Rav Elyashiv called for protest? If so what are these Charedim really protesting? Is it the Supreme Court ruling itself – barring discrimination? That cannot be right. It makes no sense that Charedi leadership would advocate on behalf of prejudice against fellow religious Jews and contradicts the story I heard from that Charedi Posek.

Is it about the enforcement tactic of the Supreme Court? If that is the case - why should that be opposed? Shouldn’t they support measures that ensure there is no discrimination? What is the Slonimer Rebbe advocating that is worth going to jail for? What principle is he defending? Why is the Charedi world so upset here?

In my view prejudice ought to be stamped out in its entirety from the midst of any and all of segments of Klal Yisroel. To the extent that we can do it in any particular circumstance –like in a Charedi school - it ought to be done. So in theory I agree with the Supreme Court’s efforts in Emanuel.

I’m not sure I agree with the forcing a parent to send a child to a particular school though. Parents ought to have a right to send to the school of their choice. But I certainly agree with the court sentiments. And by requiring all schools to not discriminate - school choice will not be guided by whether Sephardim will be allowed to attend or not.

This does not mean that the legitimate concerns about a school teaching the values of the home are not valid. But there is a proper way to handle that without discriminating. The answer is teaching tolerance as a part of the curriculum. It ought to be done from the very first moment a child enters a school.

There is nothing wrong and everything right about teaching that the Mesorah of both Ashkenazim and Sephardim are legitimate – in an Elu V’Elu way. Each student should be told to follow their own Mesorah and be proud of it. And not be jealous of the Mesorah of the other. Respect for differences should be paramount. Mechanchim should be trained in the customs and cultures of both communities so that they can teach each student Al Pi Darko.

Only education and social interaction will eliminate the prejudice that is so inbred in so many homes. If we are serious about it – most prejudice can be eradicated in a single generation.