Sunday, September 18, 2016

When Prejudice Trumps Rabbinic Authority

Image for illustration  purposes taken from YWN
Prejudice. An ugly word, in my view. Prejudging anything is unfair and unjust. Especially when it comes to people. Nonetheless we are all victims of it. Whether as recipients or as adherents. As recipients the Jewish people needs no commentary. But as holders of prejudicial views there is a lot that needs to be said.

Just a few days ago I was present at a conversation where a good friend of mine – an otherwise  truly decent fellow – spoke in derogatory terms about a minority. Casting them as a group in a less than favorable light. Although I made a point of it being a prejudicial comment - the conversation proceeded without comment by anyone else - as though it was a commonly known fact. 

I have been around a long time. And this kind of talk is common. Of course you will never hear anyone say it in public. But in private conversation it is almost a forgone conclusion – common knowledge about the inferiority of certain groups of people. ‘We all know it’s true.’ But we can’t say so publicly’... seems to be a common attitude. Not by all of us. Hopefully most of us would not feel that way. But certainly far too many of us do. I hear it all the time from otherwise  fine and decent people. Good people that would give you the shirt off of their backs if they thought you needed it.

One can speculate why this is the case, There are a variety of reasons that this kind of prejudice exists. But the one thing that is common among them all, is that it is wrong! Judging someone unfavorably because of his skin color, ethnicity or religion is evil. There are no ‘ifs ands or buts’ about it!

What happens when these prejudices arise in institutional situations? What happens for example when a child is denied entry into a school because of such prejudice? A few years ago, there were serious attempts by some Charedi girls schools in Israel to bar Sephardi students. Officials at those schools denied the accusations of discrimination as the reason. (Don’t they always?) They claimed that new rules were instituted to assure compliance with certain religious standards. The problem was that for some ‘strange reason’ it only affected Sephardi girls. For some reason, only they did not live up to the new ‘religious standards’ of the school.

If I recall correctly both Rav Yosef Shalom Elyashiv - and later, Rav Aharon Leib Shteinman didn’t buy those arguments and insisted that those girls be admitted to the school. Arguments that these girls would lower the standards of the school if they were admitted fell on deaf ears. Because both of these religious leaders understood that the real impediment to their entry was ethnic prejudice against Sephardim.

Well a similar situation has now reared its ugly head again, it appears. Parents whose children were denied entry into Charedi school complained to Israeli officials this time. From YWN
While the matter of discrimination in chareidi girl’s high schools (seminar) is not new, this administration, perhaps more than any preceding it, has announced it will not tolerate such policies and will act immediately and swiftly to prevent it. Previous governments have declared war and promised to end it, but this administration is actually taking the necessary steps, making good on threats to cut school funding.
In the latest incident, Director of the Education Ministry Chareidi District Itzik Zahavi has taken stern action against five high schools accused of continuing to discriminate against girls.
In a letter sent to the schools, it is explained that if they continue to refuse girls assigned to the schools by the ministry, they will face a harsh response including cutting their budget from the ministry. The schools that received the letter include Darchei Rachel (Mendelson), Netivot Chachma (Modi’in Illit), Bnos HaRama (Beit Shemesh), Ateret Rachel (Tiveria) and Einhorn.
Ministry Director-General Michal Cohen explains she has decided to accept the appeal filed by parents claiming discrimination.
Zahavi explains the schools have remained defiant despite earlier warnings and the ministry will not tolerate the discrimination, hence the budgets to the school will be cut. 
These schools are not going to take this threat sitting down. From YWN
As a result of “state involvement in chareidi education” an urgent gathering has been announced for principals of Beis Yaakov high schools, being held on Sunday night 15 Elul. The Union of Seminaries (frum girls’ high schools) is arranging the urgent assembly, reportedly at the behest of HaGaon HaRav Aharon Yehuda Leib Shteinman Shlita…. to discuss how to respond to the state’s involvement regarding who is and is not accepted to schools. 
I have no idea what Rav Ahron Leib Shteiman will say. But I hope he will continue to fight the discriminatory policies of these schools. That said, I understand why he might not. He may very well feel that any government interference in the Charedi educational system should be fought. (I’m sure this is the hope of those schools). R’ Shteinman may feel “Let’s get back control of our schools – and then deal with the discrimination issue - in house - later”.

Perhaps. I can understand it but I don’t agree with it and hope it doesn’t happen. If these schools haven’t listened to their own leaders - who have in the past condemned discrimination... or if they have somehow circumvented their leaders’ admonition with “rules” that somehow end up applying only to certain ethnic groups, then the government should step in. My hope is that R’ Shteinman will surprise them and stand his (anti discrimination) ground.

It may not be pleasant to have the government get involved but one has to consider the consequences if they don’t. Because as history seems to have shown - when it comes to discriminatory policies, they apparently don’t listen to what their leaders say. Which results in great hurt and an injustice for these young Jewish girls. When prejudice trumps rabbinic authority, maybe - just maybe - the government should step in.