The world has seen some moving mass protests. Anti-war protests, civil rights marches, rallies to release Natan Sharansky from prison. The mass protest has drama, heroism, poignancy and the potential to achieve real results. Consider how Mahatma Gandhi led millions of Indians in protest against British rule through noncompliance. Indian public officials resigned, parents withdrew their children from British schools and participants boycotted British goods. Eventually, around the same time they left Palestine, the British decided to stop colonizing India. They left people to create their own autonomous democracies. These are amazing moments in modern history.
Watching Haredi protests in Israel over the past few days, with the image of hundreds of thousands of black hats creating powerful impressions of solidarity and determination, it is tempting to invoke the nostalgia from those amazing moments. But here, the cause célèbre that the Haredim are rallying around is the right to be free from the Sephardic girls in their midst.
Yes, the great evil that they are shaking off is the threat that comes from the presence of a 12-year old girl who happens to pronounce the morning prayers with a guttural ayin. O what men dare do! The insolence! The audacity of the Supreme Court to rule that the racist policy is illegal! We shall not take such oppression! Ah, yes, the right to be completely insular and narrow-minded, the right to live in complete and utter fear of she who is even the slightest bit different — that is the essence of the grand protest.
This is actually the latest in a long list of loud, public and sometimes violent protests launched by Haredi leadership in recent years — against the police, social workers, the coroner, the legal system, the bus companies, the airlines, women, gays, and now Sephardic girls. I keep wondering how the Sephardic girls feel knowing that hundreds of thousands of Haredim prefer jail for themselves and foster care for their children to the prospect of interaction with Sephardic children in the playground. But then I think, at least the girls are in good company. The entire female population of Israel is pretty much in the same category in the eyes of this Haredi rabble — not to be seen or heard or afforded basic human dignity.
Let us not get deluded by the suggestion that this protest is about freedom of expression, that everyone has the right to their own educational choices. That’s just a smokescreen. A state-funded institution does not have the right to exclude on the basis of ethnicity any more than it has the right to advocate neo-Nazism. There is no freedom of expression here. This is not about democracy. What this protest is about is about trying to make the Haredi community completely detached from the entire corpus of modern values of equality, democracy and civil discourse. They want freedom from Israeli governmental rule, freedom to ignore Israeli courts, freedom to disobey police, laws, and general civility.
Let us also not delude ourselves into thinking that this is Judaism or halacha. After all, the girls trying to get into the school are observant, as is Supreme Court judge Edmond Halevy, who told the Haredim, “No matter how much you would punish me, I would never be able to pronounce the prayers with an Ashkenazi accent.”
Perhaps the courts had options other than to send parents to prison — like, say, completely cut governmental funding to the town of Emanuel or at least to the school in question. But that’s irrelevant at this point. People in contempt of court are sent to prison, period.
What saddens me most is that the object of their animosity is Israel. Haredim in Israel are happy to take the welfare checks, happy to take the hundreds of millions of shekels for schools and for those who avoid working and army service, happy to serve in the Knesset and in municipalities in order to fund their own infrastructures — milking the system while violently rejecting it. It is completely corrupt.
What we are seeing here is not divinely inspired, it is not Godly, and it is not an embodiment of Torah or truth or goodness. It’s just cold-hearted mindlessness.