A religious girls’ school in the Israeli town of Emmanuel — a school that first made headlines in 2008 when it was discovered that Sephardic students were separated from Ashkenazic students both in and out of the classroom — is back in the news. Though its ethnic segregation was declared illegal by the Supreme Court, the school has yet to comply with orders for integration.
The two groups had separate curricula, separate classrooms, separate staff rooms and separate yards delineated by a cement wall to prevent interaction. Following a national outcry, led by the Sephardic feminist organization Achoti, and the organizations Noar KaHalakha and Tmura, the courts intervened and eventually ruled that the segregation was illegal. But the school last week was declared in contempt of court and ordered to pay a 5,000 NIS ($1,400) fine for every day that it remain segregated.
According to Deputy Education Minister Meir Porush, of United Torah Judaism, any Sephardic girl who wants to be in the “hassidic” track can get in, as long as she agrees to speak Hebrew with an Ashkenazi accent and give up Sephardic customs at home. Segregation has been “justified” on the grounds that the Sephardic girls are on a “lower spiritual level” than Ashkenazic girls. Porush claims that 30% of the girls in the “hassidic” track have Sephardic origins and have agreed to the school’s ethnic demands, while the 74 girls who are separated out are the ones who apparently refuse to comply.
“The girls get the message that they are deformed, that they are less good, that there is something inherently wrong with them,” Yael Ben Yefet, one of the leaders of Achoti, said during a protest in 2008 outside the Supreme Court.
“This repulsive and mentally abusive treatment towards Mizrahi students has already inflicted profound damage,” writes Attorney Yael Biton. “The students have expressed deep feelings of pain, discrimination, shame, confusion, poor self-esteem, and inferiority to their Ashkenazic fellows.”
Rabbi Shalom Elyashiv, a senior leader of the Ashkenazic community in Emmanuel, has declared the Supreme Court order for equality “dreadful,” and has been encouraging his followers to disobey the ruling and even go to jail.
In addition, the Slonimer rebbe ordered his followers who live in Emmanuel not to abide by the court ruling and said, “I am willing to be the first to sit in prison over this issue….Jews sat in Russian prisons over their children’s education.”
It’s not only just Emmanuel, but also in other religious girls’ schools around Israel. In the Bais Yaakov school in Elad, for example, parents protested to ensure that a Sephardic girl would not be allowed in to the class. Even in Jerusalem, 200 Sephardic girls were left without a school to go to back in 2006 when the Bais Yaakov schools refused to admit them. “In the Emanuel case,” writes Ben Yefet, “Tmura and Achoti have, for the first time, been given permission by Sephardic rabbinical authorities to take this very disturbing issue to a secular court due to its severe circumstances.”
But the battle is hardly won, according to Ben Yefet: “The main problem in combating anti-Mizrahi discrimination in the education system is that this discrimination is largely hidden, and there is little or no public awareness of this issue.”