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Two Israels, Never Further Apart

This article took up the front page of the main section of Friday’s Yediot Ahronot, bordered by photos of the two opposing events described. It’s by Sima Kadmon, Yediot’s lead political commentator.

The mention of “the parents of Emmanuel” refers to 23 couples living an urban settlement in the West Bank, populated entirely by Haredim, who were ordered to prison Thursday by Israel’s Supreme Court on contempt of court charges, after refusing to let their young daughters sit in the same classrooms as Mizrahi/Sephardi students.

Between Two Nations

Sima Kadmon

About 100,000 people dressed in black gathered last night [Thursday] in a space of several square kilometers. Half of them in Bnei Brak, in black kapotas [Hasidic frock coats], demonstrating support for the parents of Emmanuel, and half of them in Ramat Gan Stadium, demonstrating support for British rocker Elton John.

It would be hard to dream up a reality as polarized as what took place yesterday in such a small geographical space. This was not some little country with a moustache. This was a little country with a beard, high-fashion sunglasses, a streimel [Hasidic fur hat] and miniskirts.

The simplest thing would be to describe the intersection of the two sectors of society yesterday along the Bnei Brak/Ramat Gan city line as a struggle between the free, liberal, rational, democratic Israel on one side and the benighted, ingrown, racist and chauvinist Israel on the other. The other side sees it as a struggle of an Israel of ideology, faith, Torah and values against an Israel that is decadent, hedonistic, ignorant and devoid of values.

The way it looked yesterday, it seemed there is no connecting thread, no hope for understanding, for a shared life. How did Elton John sing it yesterday? Like a candle in the wind. That’s our country.

But let us not be confused: The rational Israel was in Ramat Gan Stadium yesterday, not headed for prison by order of the Supreme Court. And when Elton John said: “Nobody will stop me from coming here,” the entire crowd rose to its feet and roared out its thanks. Because we are so much in need of recognition. Of love. Of a gentle touch from the outside world.

Of just a little bit of normalcy.

The Emmanuel story was the number-one news event in Israel last week, at times knocking the flotilla fallout off the front pages. The case involves a small girls’ elementary school, operated by the Slonim Hasidic sect, that was ordered to take in a population of Sephardic Haredi girls. The school first refused on orders from the Slonimer rebbe, then walled the school building into Sephardic and Ashkenazic sections with no passage between. Even the playground is divided in two by a high wall.

The Supreme Court ordered the school integrated following a complaint brought by Sephardic parents charging that their children are victims of racial/ethnic discrimination. The parents chose to go to prison rather than disobey the rebbe. There were mass demonstrations by tens of thousands of Haredim, including an estimated 20,000 chanting and by some accounts violent Haredim who accompanied the fathers as they walked to police headquarters to turn themselves in. At last report the court had backed down and lifted the mothers’ prison sentences.

The mainstream press was full of angry articles all week denouncing the medieval, racist, scofflaw behavior of the Ashkenazic Haredim, including tough editorials by both the left-wing Haaretz (here) and the right-wing Jerusalem Post (here).

Only a handful of commentators tried to get the view of the Haredim, who insist that the separatism has nothing to do with ethnic or racial divisions. This news analysis is the only piece I have found English, and the defense of the Haredi position is actually presented by a non-religious education expert. Nahum Barnea had a powerful piece in the Yediot Friday supplement (alas, Hebrew print only) where he interviewed several parents and a little girl from the Slonim community in Emmanuel. It becomes clear that if racism is a factor, it’s a minor one. The Slonimer are a small, intensely insular sect who keep their kids away from any worldly influence and have very strict rules of dress. The reason they have a small school in Emmanuel with available classroom space is because there aren’t really enough of them to fill a school but they won’t let their kids go to school with the other Hasidim—Lubavitch, Belz and others—because they don’t them exposed to those treif influences. The Sephardic kids who were referred to the Slonim school are a particular tough pill for the Hasidim because they are a community of baalei teshuva (newly Orthodox) and Barnea reports that they haven’t fully absorbed the norms of the Haredi world they’re trying to join—no cursing, no makeup, no jingly earrings, no talking back to teachers and so on.

Yedidia Stern, a law professor at Bar-Ilan University and one of the most liberal Orthodox commentators in Israel, had this op-ed piece on Ynet in which, without going into the background explanation that Barnea provided, he puts the blame on both sides, urges the secular society to beware of growing demonization of the Haredi world and urges greater trust among Haredim toward the courts, the ultimate protector of minorities.

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