Jewish Ideas Daily has been succeeded and re-launched as Mosaic. Read more...

Trouble in Emmanuel

Last Friday, Israel's leading tabloid, Yediot Aharanot, split its front page with two photos. One showed overdressed, black-clad ultra-Orthodox Jews rallying under a withering sun to protest a court decision affecting educational arrangements in the town of Emmanuel; the other showed the pop singer Elton John at a sold-out nighttime concert near Tel Aviv. The headline: "Between Two Worlds." As usual, things are more complicated. 

Relevant Links
Inside Emmanuel's World  Larry Derfner, Jerusalem Post. Is Ashkenazi opposition to integration in the West Bank town rooted in religious principle, or in ethnic prejudice?
The Sledgehammer Approach  Shira Leibowitz Schmidt, Jerusalem Post. Denying the right of parents to educate their children as they see fit, the Supreme Court has meddled with a successful arrangement and set back Sephardi-Ashkenazi relations.
It's the Law  Yair Lapid, Ynet. The ultra-Orthodox, who are advantaged by the state’s intrinsically unfair laws, should think twice before further infuriating Israelis who have abided by those laws.
Paradoxes of Modernity  Menachem Friedman, Jewish Religious Leadership. The formation of “voluntary communities” of ultra-Orthodox Jews—a modern phenomenon—appears to have strengthened the authority of rabbis and encouraged extremism.
Taking in Order to Give  Shahar Ilan, Haaretz. Abolishing welfare payments for yeshiva students will help both the students and the Israeli economy.
Too Much Insularity?  Jonathan Rosenblum, Jewish Media Resources. The need to maintain haredi separation from modern society cannot be denied; neither can basic haredi responsibilities toward other members of society.

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 politically loyal to the Shas party. A minority are Ashkenazi (of European heritage) and hasidic. With Emmanuel's fortunes in decline, better-off families have left, to be replaced in recent years by newly religious and poorer Sephardim.

Ashkenazi parents in Emmanuel say that their children were being negatively influenced by the "intolerable" deportment of Sephardi girls at the town's well-regarded, state-licensed, and state-assisted Beit Ya'acov School. To preserve their mores, the parents put up a barrier and created a school-within-the-school for their own girls and the daughters of those Sephardim willing to comply with strict hasidic standards, leaving most of the Sephardi pupils on the other side.  

Sephardi leaders challenged the segregation in the courts, which repeatedly ordered the Ashkenazim to reintegrate the school. Ashkenazi parents, however, insisted on the right to educate their children in accordance with their religious sensibilities. Matters came to a head last week when Israel Supreme Court Justice Edmond Levi ordered dozens of the parents temporarily jailed for refusing to obey the court's order.

In response, 100,000 ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazi Jews poured into the streets of Jerusalem last Thursday to escort the "parent-martyrs" as they turned themselves in to authorities. Having embarrassingly aired its dirty laundry in public, the ultra-Orthodox world—Ashkenazi and Sephardi, hasidic and non-hasidic alike—has now temporarily closed ranks. Adding complexity, a Jerusalem rabbinical panel recognized by all sides has essentially said the school must be reintegrated, thus possibly setting the stage for an end to the Supreme Court's involvement.

At stake is an arguably imprudent test of wills between the court and ultra-Orthodox rabbis.  Justice Levi—himself an Orthodox Jew—exclaimed in amazement: "It cannot be that rabbis' rulings will take precedence over the Supreme Court." But the rabbis, who lead a determined struggle against the encroachments of modernity by keeping their children out of the army, forbidding television, and strictly regulating exposure to radio, newspapers, Internet, and mobile phones, are convinced they have a great deal to protect.

The ultra-Orthodox community is still reeling from another court ruling—ten  years in the making and handed down earlier this month—that would abolish government stipends for married yeshiva students by the end of this year. The community depends on these funds, which help support some 10,000 married men and their families, keeping them in their cloistered way of life and out of the work force. On top of this, the court recently ordered the army to implement a 2002 Knesset law that would have ultra-Orthodox men not in yeshivot perform national service, as small but growing numbers already do.  

The latest domestic battles—coming at a time when Israel faces real existential threats—are emblematic of long-standing internal cleavages about the right balance between tradition and modernity and where ultimate authority reposes. And that is where Israel's political system comes in, to the detriment of other means of resolving social tensions.  Thanks to the country's system of proportional representation, which artificially boosts parochial parties, 10 percent of the population holds inequitable sway over the allocation of state resources. Indeed, ultra-Orthodox parties are expected to attempt, by means of new Knesset legislation, a workaround of the court decision curbing stipends for married yeshiva students.

Meanwhile, mainstream Israel—both secular and religiously traditional, as well as the many shades in between—has become increasingly impatient with the conduct of the ultra-Orthodox world and its readiness to benefit from the country's largess while rejecting its core values and the basic obligations of citizenship. As in the past, some hold out hope that the latest fiasco will provide an opening at long last to revamp the electoral system fundamentally. We shall see.



Gary on June 23, 2010 at 8:54 am (Reply)
Elliot's conclusion focuses on some in the Orthodox world benefiting from the country's largess while rejecting its core values. I am more concerned with their rejection or at the very least minimization of the Torah's core values.
Mike Finestone on June 23, 2010 at 10:41 am (Reply)
It is becoming increasingly impossible to revamp the electoral system because with each election the ultra-orthodox become stronger. It is probably already far too late.

Mike F.
Yitzchak Ben-Shmuel on June 24, 2010 at 11:19 am (Reply)
The Emmanuel saga is very sad in that there is enough blame to go around for everyone; Sephardi lack of pride, Ashkenazi arrogance, local parochialism, Misrad Hachinuch incompetance, the Supreme Court's
hubris and insensitivities, the Slonim Haredim hypocricy, the media sensationalism. And I weep for the real victims here, our girls who witnessed their parents put them behind walls. Shame on us.

Comments are closed for this article.

Like us on Facebook! Follow us on Twitter! Pin us on Pintrest!

Jewish Review of Books

Inheriting Abraham