The Ghetto in the Ghetto

by Michal Schwartz

The past year has witnessed two cases of discrimination in the religious schools [in Israel]: ultraorthodox Jews of West European descent (Ashkenazis) discriminating against ultraorthodox Jews of darker hues. In August 2009, private religious schools in Petach Tikva refused to admit Ethiopian Jews. In response, the Education Ministry threatened to withdraw financial support for these schools and even to shut them down. In this way it compelled them to admit a hundred pupils.

The second, more recent instance occurred at the ultraorthodox West Bank settlement of Immanuel, where a Hasidic group known as the Slonim is dominant. In September 2008 the Slonim separated their daughters from the Mizrahi girls in the settlement’s school. (Mizrahis, also known as Sephardim, derive from North Africa and Arab lands.) The Slonim built a plaster wall the length of the school and put a fence through its yard, covering it with canvas so that their daughters wouldn’t see the Mizrahis. They changed the hours of the breaks and forbade association between the groups.

A Mizrahi Non-profit petitioned the High Court to bring an end to this discrimination. In April, the Court commanded the school’s integration, fining the Slonim parents for every day they failed to obey. Declaring loyalty only to their Rabbi and religious law, the parents defied the order. In June 2010, therefore, the High Court sentenced the parents to prison, including mothers of small children. Twenty-two of the Slonim fathers, and none of the mothers, arrived to serve their terms, accompanied by 100,000 orthodox supporters. It looked as if the implicit tension between secular law and religious law in the Jewish state had finally come to a head. On June 28, however, a compromise was reached. The Slonim agreed to a three-day seminar, to include both the Ashkenazi and Mizrahi pupils, which would end the school year. The fathers were released from jail. No commitment was made concerning the future.

The bitterness of the culture war between High Court supporters and the ultraorthodox Ashkenazis, and the long “shelf life” of this war in Israel’s media, derive from its character as an internal Jewish dispute. However, as with the conflict between the State and its Arab citizens, this dispute too has no solution within the framework of a Jewish State.

The founders of the State envisioned a secular nation, democratic and even socialist. Thus Israel arose as a hybrid containing a structural contradiction. In their identity cards until 2003, Jews were defined as members of the Jewish nationality and Arabs as members of the Arab nationality; since then the distinction is made more subtly, using Hebrew dates in the case of Jews only; there is no Israeli nationality. The definition of who is a Jew and what is Judaism was and remains a religious matter, dependent on the rabbis and not on state offices. And who is more Jewish than one who belongs to the ultraorthodox, whose life is bound up with the Torah and who is willing to go to the stake for it? What does it matter if he himself doesn’t recognize the Jewish State and its institutions?

From its beginning, consequently, Israel gave to the ultraorthodox, including the anti-Zionists among them, powers and benefits far beyond their proportion in the population or even in the building of government coalitions. The reason for these benefits was ideological. Was it conceivable that the Jewish state would combat the ultraorthodox as did the Russian Tsar? Could it compel God-fearing Jews to desecrate the Holy One by attending mixed schools? But more: in order to preserve the Jewish character of the State and prevent assimilation, modern Israel—to this very day—permits marriages on its territory only in accordance with religious law.

Such was the tax that the socialist, secular Zionists paid to the ultraorthodox minority, which was able to isolate itself and stay out of the economy at public expense. This is the reason for a number of things: the establishment of an independent orthodox educational system; the comprehensive release of the ultraorthodox from military obligation; and the generous financing of Yeshiva students. More than the ultraorthodox needed the State, the Jewish State needed them.

In the strife between the High Court and the Ashkenazi ultraorthodox, some see the acme of the contradiction between “democracy” and “Jewish state.” Nowhere, however, is that contradiction in sharper focus than in the state’s relations with another population: the Arabs. Unlike the ultraorthodox, the Arabs get no benefits. On the contrary, the State created the problem of the refugees, confiscated most Arab-owned land, and, employing the old British emergency regulations, related to the Arabs as to a fifth column, both security-wise and demographically. It coined the term “unrecognized villages.” It discriminated in every conceivable field. In accordance with the Citizenship Law, the Law of Return applies to Jews only. This law grants citizenship to every Jew who immigrates, while ignoring the right of the Arab refugees to return to their homes. It ensured an automatic Jewish majority.

The Arab population never asked to study Islamic law at public expense. It did not seek to segregate itself. The State rewarded it, however, with rates of poverty and unemployment double those found among Jews.

The High Court has not opposed the confiscation of Arab lands, the destruction of Arab houses, administrative arrests without charges, the closing of newspapers, the denial of citizenship or the ban on family unification. In the few cases where the Court did decide in favor of the Arab citizens, as in that of Ikrit and Biram—in which it ordered the State to let the villagers return to their homes—it did not stand up and fight when the State ignored its decisions.

Today, the ultraorthodox are not a negligible minority. Their birthrate has turned them into an economic burden for the working population. The Arabs in Israel likewise have a high birthrate. Each of these two groups has a special educational system, each gets exempted from army service, each is poor and jobless. The ultraorthodox prefer unemployment, the Arabs have it forced upon them. Neither group has faith in state institutions, including the High Court.

Meanwhile, the contradiction in Israel’s self-definition is sharpening. The High Court is seen as attempting to protect a privileged minority, which wants to have its cake and eat it too: to be a democracy while discriminating against Arabs, and to be a Jewish State, but secular, without concessions to the ultraorthodox. The much wished-for consensus, which was supposed to result in a constitution, is dissipating. If Israel truly wanted to be democratic, it would have to be egalitarian, granting all its citizens the same rights and obligations. Until that happens, conflicts with the Arabs and the ultraorthodox will go on tearing at the country’s innards.

Credit: This piece originally appeared in Challenge Magazine:


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