Monday, June 21, 2010

Emanuel - Ethnic Prejudice or Torah Chinuch?

The situation in Emanuel has blown up beyond all expectation. Witness the mass demonstrations and the virtual unanimity of the Charedi world in support of the Slonimer Chasidim. They were deemed by the Supreme Court of Israel to be in violation of the court ordered integration of their school.

To briefly sum up events – An anti discrimination lawsuit was filed with the Israeli courts by a religious Sephardi advocate for Sephardim against the Slonimer Beis Yaakov– a Chinuch Atzmai school in Emanuel that receives funding from the state. They were accused of ethnic bias in their admissions policy. The court agreed and ordered them to integrate.

So as not to be in violation of the court order - some of the parents did an ‘end run’ and started a new school using the same teachers from the Beis Yaakov. The court said that this was a naked attempt to circumvent the integration order and ordered those parents to send their daughters back to the Beis Ya’akov under penalty of jail if they don’t.

The Chasidim have always denied that they discriminated and point to Sephardi girls who were indeed accepted. The court didn’t buy that argument and said that unless they completely integrate they would be in violation of the court order. Parents continued to defy the court order and are now in jail – led by the Slonimer Rebbe. This brought an immediate response from the Charedi Rabbinic leadership with names like R’ Elyashiv and R’ Steinman rallying their consistencies to stage mass protests all over Israel.

Tens – perhaps hundreds – of thousands of Charedim showed up in solidarity with the Slonimer Chasidim. They were also joined in their cause by the undisputed leader of Sephardi Jewry, Rav Ovadia Yosef who sided with his Ashkenazi Charedi counter parts.

Yesterday, the Agudah Moetzes came out with their own very strongly worded proclamation of support for the Slonimer Chasidim and condemnation of the Israeli Supreme Court.

Even those like R’ Dovid Landesman - an occasional guest poster on this blog who formerly sided with the Supreme Court and knows about widespread prejudice in the Charedi Ashkenazi world against Sephardim - changed his position and now sides with the rest of the Charedi world in support of these Slonimer Chasidim.

The short version explaining all of the of the above is that the strong belief that what has happened here is not a case of discrimination at all. It is yet another case of secular interference in Torah education. This has indeed been the clarion call of all concerned. The idea that there was any prejudice against Sephardim in this particular case has been rejected. First of all because of Sephardim in the school who have willingly sided with the Slonimer Chasidim and have even joined them in jail. And secondly because Sephardi Gadol Rav Yosef has determined that this was not an issue of anti Sephardi prejudice but an anti Torah issue.

The bottom line is that there is now virtually no chance that the call for integration will succeed. And this is a sad commentary on Charedi society both here and in Israel. I can understand and even agree that there should be no government interference in the type of education Charedim want to give their children. Although I personally strongly feel that there should be a track that allows for Parnassa considerations, this is a separate issue. In theory people should have the right not to have any government interference in how they teach their kids. I therefore understand when Charedi leadership protests any government interference – no matter how slight.

But even though there are Sephardim in the school there is a historic precedent that shows that prejudice is part and parcel of the Ashkenazi mindest. I believe therefore that it is highly unlikely that there was no ethnic prejudice in the admissions policy of the Slonimer Beis Ya’akov.

This mentality needs to be wiped off the face of the earth. One Jew has no business being prejudiced against another. Schools that discriminate against Sephardim violate that principle - and the principle of V’Ahavta L’Reacha KaMocha.

What about those parents in the school that are Sephardim? How – one may ask – is it possible to accuse anyone of ethnic prejudice when there are members of that ethnicity in the school?
The answer I’m afraid is an old one.

It’s called stripping them if their ethnicity. Simply make rules that will make it difficult for Sephardim to follow – rules that included stripping them of their culture. In doing that they solve the problem. They have in essence killed two birds with one stone. You have your showcase Sephardim who have agreed to abide by the Chasidic rules and you have eliminated their culture in the process. Win/win. The courts saw through that as did the Sephardi lawyer who filed suit in the first place.

What about Rav Yosef? How can anyone accuse people of anti Sephardi prejudice when their Gadol HaDor says that they are not?

Again this answer is an old one as well. When it comes to Torah education and government interference at any level – all other concerns fall by the wayside. Rabbinic leaders unite.They see this as an attack the Torah by a secular court that has no business interfering in any way with a Torah school – not matter what the reason. I truly believe that this is what is happening here.

I also doubt that the rabbinic leaders themselves are in any way prejudiced. Indeed there is evidence to the contrary. I know for example that Rav Steinman is vehemently opposed to ethnic prejudice and in fact ordered a school principle in Ramat Bet Shemesh to accept a Sephardi student. And yet here he is 100% on the side of the Slonimer Chasidim. My sense of the matter is that had he personally been approached instead of the Supreme Court there might have been a different outcome. But the petition was filed in a secular court. It may as well have gone to the KKK.

If one looks at rhetoric by the Charedi establishment it is almost all couched in terms of this being a secular attack on Torah. I’m sure they believe that. In fact I am not questioning their motives. They actually believe that the Supreme Court has flaunted their superiority over Halacha and feel justified in their attitude that strong protest is warranted. But as in so many other instances like this I disagree with them.

They had the same sense of outrage when it was suggested by a government agency that a basic secular studies program be part of a high school curriculum in order to qualify for government funding. They had the same reaction to that. They saw it as interference by a secular body in Torah education - and promised to fight any attempt at doing that. Never mind that the American Charedi educational system offers such courses in their schools. It was still deemed anti Torah. The same thing is going on here. They see it as a Lo Plug! One must fight any attempt at all when it comes to government interference in the affairs of religious education – no matter what!

I continue to believe that there is ethnic prejudice in Emanuel. Based on both my own personal experience and those of others –including some Charedim – Ashkenazi prejudice against Sephardim is widespread – especially among Chasidim. There is no reason to believe that these Slonimer Chasidim are any different.

It now seems like all this activity has taken its toll on the complainant. The Charedi Sephardi attorney feels that Rav Yosef has abandoned him. Rav Yosef has indeed said that this attorney has lost his Olam Habah by taking this issue to the secular courts.

If this cause is abandoned this will not be a win for Torah. It will be a win for ethnic cleansing!

I would like to make note of the protests themselves. It seems that they were peaceful. Masses of Charedim demonstrated and to the best of my knowledge not a single incidence of violence was reported. It is my firm belief that in a democracy one should have the right to protest anything they see as an injustice.

This is what happened here and they did so in an admirable way. So even though I disagree with them – I applaud the manner in which they did it. This proves something I have said all along. The vast majority of Charedim are not represented by the violent thugs one sees on an almost daily basis in Meah Shearim. If only the Meah Shearim citizens would learn how to do that…