Friday, September 24, 2010

Trouble in Emmanuel

Israel Supreme Court Justice Edmond Levi – himself an Orthodox Jew – issued an implied challenge when he told a packed chamber: “It cannot be that rabbis’ rulings will take precedence over the Supreme Court.” A hundred thousand ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews poured into the streets of Jerusalem last Thursday to answer in the affirmative.

Levi had just ordered dozens of ultra-Orthodox (or haredi) parents to jail, until the end of the semester, for refusing to comply with a court order to send their daughters to elementary school. The parents kept their children home rather than allow them to mingle with Sephardi girls – also ultra-Orthodox, but less stringently so -- at the Beit Yaakov School in Emmanuel. Throngs of demonstrators escorted these "parent-martyrs" as they turned themselves in to authorities.

After months of failed efforts to cajole the parents into a compromise, the justices ruled that they were in contempt of court and were apparently motivated by ethnic and religious prejudice. Not at all, say the haredim. The issue is one of principle: the right to educate their children in accordance with their ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi traditions. For Israel's body politic – already split along political, religious, social and cultural lines – the Emmanuel affair is yet another slash at the polity's cohesion. On Friday, the country's leading tabloid, Yediot Aharanot split its front page with two photos. One showed the over-dressed, black-clad ultra-Orthodox rallying under a withering sun; the other showed the outlandish pop singer Elton John at a sold-out nighttime concert near Tel Aviv. The headline sought to encapsulate Israel's dilemma: "Between Two Worlds."

Emmanuel is an underprivileged ultra-Orthodox settlement in the northern West Bank. Much of the population is Sephardi (with origins in the Arab world) and loyal to the Shas Party. A minority of residents are Ashkenazi (of European heritage) mostly Hassidim affiliated with the Slonim, Bratslav, and Gur dynasties. With Emmanuel's fortunes in decline, more well off families have left and, in recent years, been replaced by newly religious Sephardim. The hassidic parents say that their children were being negatively influenced by the "intolerable" deportment of the newcomers' daughters at the town's well-regarded, state-licensed and state-assisted Beit Ya’acov School.

With the Slonim parents taking the initiative, the Ashkenazim put up a fence, and created a school within the school for 75 of their daughters – also allowing a vetted group of Sephardi girls, whose families committed to living Ashkenazi religious lifestyles, to join them. The remaining 175 Sephardi girls were left to be educated on the other side of a barrier.

Sephardi ultra-Orthodox leaders challenged the segregation in the courts which repeatedly ordered Ashkenazi authorities to reintegrate the school. When the Education Ministry took down the barrier, the Ashkenazi parents – following rabbinic orders – sought to evade the court's ruling by bussing their girls outside the district. The court blocked this evasion and the controversy came to a head last week.

What distinguishes the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox from the Sephardim is the extent to which they will go in their unceasing struggle against modernity. This quest for insularity explains why Ashkenazi haredim keep their children out of the Israel Defense Forces and why they forbid television, and strictly regulate exposure to radio, newspapers, Internet, and mobile phones. The obsession with preserving a cloistered way of life is also why many of their men never enter the work force.
Chauvinism, too, plays a role. Ashkenazi haredim maintain a sense of religio-cultural superiority toward their Sephardi brethren. In Emmanuel, for instance, while the little Sephardi girls might wear knee-length white stockings under modest frocks, more is expected of little Ashkenazi girls who are obliged to wear white waist-length tights, even more modest skirts, and long-sleeve blouses worn with collars buttoned to the top. They are also forbidden to ride bicycles – “for the sake of modesty.”

In a new twist, Shas spiritual leader Ovadia Yossef, whose son Rabbi Yaakov Yosef had spearheaded Sephardi litigation efforts, declared that ultra-Orthodox Jews who turn to the secular judiciary to pass judgment on religious disputes risk losing their places in heaven. The son has now dissociated himself from the case citing temporal threats to his life not the risk of eternal damnation. Having embarrassingly aired their dirty laundry in public, the ultra-Orthodox world –Ashkenazi and Sephardi, Hassidic and Lithuanian -- has now closed ranks.

Mainstream Israel – secular and traditional -- has become increasingly jaded by the conduct of the haredi world particularly its willingness to benefit from the state while rejecting its core values. There is a prevailing sense of resignation that 10 percent of the population will continue to hold inequitable political sway over the allocation of resources unless the system of proportional representation – which artificially boosts parochial and single-issue parties -- is fundamentally revamped.

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