Long beards and black hats

JERUSALEM - JUNE 17: (ISRAEL-OUT) Ultra-Orthodox Jews attend a rally June 17, 2010 in Jerusalem, Israel. Tens of thousands of religious Israelis protested against a Supreme Court ruling which ordered the jailing of a group of Ashkenazi parents of European origin who have refused to send their daughters to a school with Jewish girls of Middle Eastern, or Sephardic, descent. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

Good Shabbos. It’s a great day to be wearing my favorite t-shirt. But it’s a tough Sabbath to be an Ultra-Orthodox Jew in Jerusalem. (For last week’s discussion on the use of “ultra-orthodox,” click here.) Since the Israeli Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a religious girls’ school had to be integrated, the Haredim have been causing a lot of trouble in Jerusalem streets.

Protesters snarled traffic in Jerusalem and another large religious enclave, crowded onto balconies in city squares, and waved posters decrying the court’s decision and proclaiming the supremacy of religious law.

There were a few small scuffles, and a police officer emerged from one of them holding his eye, apparently slightly injured.

It was one of the largest protests in Jerusalem’s history, and a stark reminder of the ultra-Orthodox minority’s refusal to accept the authority of the state.

Also, the throngs of devout Jews showed to which extent the ultra-Orthodox live by their own rules, some of them archaic, while wielding disproportionate power in the modern state of Israel.

Harsh words. I think one of my colleagues interpreted this AP story as “WE HATE ULTRAULTRAULTRAORTHODOXJEWS SO MUCH.”

But if Israel has a PR problem, and it often does, Israeli Haredim need to hire PR fix-it-man Mike Sitrick (who also needs to hire Mike Sitrick). Their image has long been hurting because of a perception in Israeli society that they’re freeloading off the Jewish state — they don’t serve in the military and, because of religious convictions, the men spend time studying the Talmud instead of bringing home the kosher bacon. (Sorry.)

In a country built by a religious people, you might expect more respect for such religiously motivated life decisions. But the reasons for the protests, which have been labeled by the Israeli papers on the left, right and center as “riots,” are a lot less defensible.

If like me you thought that these schools were separated based on sex, you’d be, like me, wrong. The Israeli high court’s decision requires a school for Ashkenazi girls admit girls of Sephardic descent. Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, who is no left-wing nut, writes on his Beliefnet blog that these riots or rallies are really about protecting racism.

To be sure, there are myriad challenges with Israeli public schools which are divided between Arab and Jewish (itself and oxymoron since Jews from Arab lands are no less “Arab” than Muslims and Christians from the same places), so-called religious and non-religious, etc. But unlike these other schools, which students from communities outside the stated target population can and do attend, the Hareidi community wants an enforced ban ala’ George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse doors.

Now back to the AP telling of this story. Generally well done, the article is constrained by a common problem for the AP: time and space. It’s brief and maybe a bit abrupt because some of the context is lacking. The AP definitely fell into the … — trap? — of referring to the Ultra-Orthodox as a primitive religious minority that represents nothing but the unenlightened religious ideals of a backwards people. But the article generally did a good job capturing the scene and talking to the right people.

What the AP didn’t do — and this is a bit shocking — is explain what divides Ashkenazi Jews and the Sephardim. Sure, the story explains that Ashkenazis look like yours truly and hail from eastern Europe while the Sephardim spend much of the past five centuries in North Africa and the Middle East. But there is no discussion of why this matters.

Time expounds only slightly on this issue, which once you’ve read the Time article you recognize in the subtlest way back in the AP story:

Their reason? At the school, the Ashkenazi kids would mingle with religious Mizrahi kids, some of whom come from more secular extended families and therefore, say the Slonimers, could expose their sheltered daughters to unwanted influences from the wider world.

Still, much is missing, like the tense history between Ashkenazis and Sephardi. Maybe tense is the wrong word. It’s been more one, at times, of contempt or at least condescension. Which leads me to the most interesting thing about the stories over these riots: while many, like the AP story, give the impression that Ultra-Orthodox Jews are an unruly sect of religious extremists wanting to return Jerusalem to the Middle Ages, they overlook an equally, if not more, significant divide in Israeli society based on different, but similarly disharmonious, stereotypes.

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  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    A lot of interesting issues for the media to chew on if it has a mind to.
    For instance: Are Israeli courts like our courts?? Tending toward being anti-religious.
    If the schools start throwing together religious Jews with secularized Jews –How would the Israeli educational establishment react to this??? Like here where the public schools seem to have made it their mission to take children from families of strong traditional moral and religious values and turn them into secular-liberal robots.
    Is the religious divide between various forms of Judaism being exploited to advance secular causes by claiming that it is not values in question, but raw racism at work????Just as in the U.S. these days to have traditional values (and even believe in the rule of law and oppose anarchy)
    is to find onesself frequently labeled racist as a matter of strategy by liberal secularists.
    Of course, the number of people seriously interested in such questions is so small it probably isn’t a wise marketing move for the media to expend much time and energy on them.

  • Ira Rifkin

    “In a country built by a religious people, you might expect more respect for such religiously motivated life decisions.”

    Sorry, but you’ve got the history of Israel’s founding backwards. It was SECULAR Jews – some militantly so, such as my late father-in-law, whose kibbutz made a point of working on Yom Kippur, the holiest of Jewish religious holidays, to show its contempt for traditional religious law – and decidedly not religious Jews who created the state. Religious Jews generally opposed its creation.

    That’s critical but missing background because it explains why the ultra-Orthodox reject Israeli civil law. They do so because they reject the legitimacy of the state, which they regard as an imposter, man-made entity rather than, as they see it, the heavenly ordained Israel that will rise only with the coming of the Messiah.

    The haredim – as the ultra-Orthodox call themselves (isn’t the label “ultra-Orthodox” as stigmatizing and imprecise as the label “fundamentalist”?) – have outsized political power within a state they philosophically reject as a consequence of Israel’s secular founders’ decision to buy them off (literally, with mucho money and exemptions from serving in the military etc.) in return for their public support for the state.

    The secular politicians simply could not foresee fervent piety suviving for long in the modern age, so they figured any concessions to the haredim would soon amount to nothing. Guess they didn’t GetReligion.

    Also missing here is the haredim explanation for why they won’t “integrate” the girls school in question. Israel’s secular media – as well as the implicaton of this post – see it as racial discrimination (as does Hirschfield, apparently).

    The Ashkenazi haredim, in this case, argue that’s its not skin pigment that’s the issue (Sepharadim – a term also being somewhat misused here; but let that go for now – tend to be darker hued than Jews whose ancestors spent time in northern Europe). Rather, they argue that its a matter of religious observance, their observance level being more stringent and, of course, more holy than that of the Sepharadim. Hence, the haredim maintain they are protecting their daughters from impious influences.

    Historically, Sephardi observance has been less strict – I’d say more tolerant, myself – however in modern Israel there are many Sephardim who have adopted Ashkenazic norms because the Ashkenazim rule the nation’s religious establishment.

    Personally, I agree with much of the criticism of the haredim community – criticism of both the Ashkenazi and Sephardic communities, for that matter. Journalistically, though, everone gets to make their argument.

    But a sad fact of Middle East life is that religious sectarianism is generally the bottom line for deciding who lives where, who marries who, who mingles with who, and who fights with who. Its a battle of the tribes. Which is the context for this story.

    One last point: Haredi Jews did not exist in the Middle Ages. Not in the Middle East or even in Europe. They’re a more recent phenomenon, a reaction to modernism.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    Ira, I’m quite familiar with Israel’s founding, but even the secular founders of Israel were Jews. Jews — whether Ortho, Conservative, atheist or Buddhist — were compelled as Zionists by the history of the Jewish people.

  • Brad A. Greenberg

    To be sure, because it may not have been clear, I appreciated your comment and what it adds to the discussion.

  • Deacon John M. Bresnahan

    As noted by Ira the haredim have “outsized political power.” And this should grow greatly with the passage of time since haredim families are huge compared to the families of secularized Jews–as is true of virtually all peoples where there is a religious–secular split.
    Strongly religious people of the Judeo-Christian Tradition still take the Biblical injunction to “be fruitful and multiply” seriously. So here in the U.S. the only state where those of European lineage are growing in numbers more rapidly than other groups is Mormon Utah. In Northern Ireland a lot of the friction between Protestant and Catholic has been dieing down because all agree the people should decide whether the North joins the South—and in about 10 years or so Catholics will likely outnumber
    the more secularized Protestants and the Catholics will decide whether to join the South. And in Europe secularized Christians and Jews are voluntarily wiping themselves out demographically as Moslems fill the schools with their young.
    So “secular” Israel has a very serious problem if they are going to maintain a democracy they like
    in the future if they are not willing to populate the future— as seems true of most secularized peoples whose reproduction rates usually fall below the needed
    population replacement rate.

  • Ira Rifkin

    Sorry Brad but to identify as a Jew does not necessarily conflate with being “religious.” as the word is generally understood.

    Judaism may be the historical tribal religion of the Jews, but there are many examples of self-identifying and highly Jewishly literate Jews who despised the culture’s religious component. Baruch Spinoza is but one prominent example.

    Hence you have professed atheists – would you call them religious? – identifying as Jews. There’s contemporary Humanistic Judaism, the 20th-Century European Bundists, who were not only avowed anti-religionists but also anti-Zionists, and even ethnicly identified Jewish refusniks who fought the Soviet Union for the right to emigrate to Israel.

    One can of course argue that all values derive from spiritual/religious insights since all cultures have a religious component (a notion I agree with). But that’s a different matter.

    One need not be a religious Jew to want to flee anti-Semitism.

    Conflating all Jews with Judaism and all things Jewish with religion is an ongoing media generalization stemming from confusion. True, a great many Jews also cannot parse the differences.

  • aron

    Israel, our modern Israel, was not built by religous Jews.

  • http://www.mormoninmichigan.blogspot.com John Pack Lambert

    One of the main failures in western media reports on this issue is to discuss the meaning of such partions in the minds of Haredi Jews.

    American Christians in general worship in settings where they sit by family. Even the worship services I have been to where people sat by gender involved full view between the two-sides.

    In many Reform and Conservative, and even in some Orthodox Jewish synagogues seating is by family. It is only Haredi Orthodo and maybe a few groups that are not quite that extreme that go so far as to put up a physical partition.

    Thus, while to Americans putting up physical partitions is an outrage, to Haredi Jews it is how they operate in the synagogue, so why not in the school?

  • http://www.acupuncturebrooklyn.com Karen Vaughan

    I think the article could have done a better job of differentiating between groups of the Haredi. Are we talking Bobov, Carliner, Satmar, Lubavitch, some coalition of Ashkenazi Jews? The beliefs of all of the Haredi are pretty similar, including the ultraorthodox Sephardim. Details of the “fence around the Torah” do vary- Bobov women generally don’t wear denim or bright colors, the Satmar will wear more colorful clothing in casual circumstances but wear seamed thick stockings and felt liners under their designer pastel silk scarves. Married Lubavitch women will wear wigs and look more modern, although well covered. I am less familiar with divisions among the Sephardim, but I know the ones here are extremely picky about intermarriage with Ashkenazim, cutting off children who marry non-Sephardim. Food is ethnically different, although within the same boundaries of law although they may differ on which kosher authorities they trust (also true between Ashkenazi groups.) Prayers may have slightly different pronunciations and tunes. They follow the same 613 commandments.

    After working among the Ashkenazi Haredim here, I have to say that the racism charge is probably correct. The Sephardim tend to be more olive skinned, have different dress and may smell different from their aromatically spiced foods. To groups that obsesses over the minutiae of observance, even similarly halachic Jews who look and sound different may be considered an affront. I think the press was accurate here.

  • http://www.acupuncturebrooklyn.com Karen Vaughan

    Interesting quote in Haaretz:

    “A leading spokesman of Israel’s modern Orthodox stream on Thursday urged religious Zionists not to take part in the mass protests, regardless of the political price they may pay in the future for refusing to support the movement.

    “I cannot take part in the racism and discrimination that is taking place, which is just the tip of the iceberg,” said Rabbi Yuval Sherlo, who heads the joint army-yeshiva program in Petah Tikva.

    Religious Zionism must “return to its historic role” and bring both sides to a compromise. “It’s impossible to claim that this is Jewish law or that it is sanctifying the name of God,” he said. ”


  • http://www.acupuncturebrooklyn.com Karen Vaughan

    The Jerusalem Post had exceptional coverage on the issue, even quoting the girls who attend school.


  • http://www.acupuncturebrooklyn.com Karen Vaughan

    And this article in Matzav gets into the practices and curriculum and how the court may have exacerbated divisions.


  • Rabbi Joe Jew

    Outsiders certainly do not get the subtle differences, and none of those who posted comments seem to get the point.

    The school in question split along lines of observance and religiosity, not race or ethnicity. Of the parents sent to jail, many happen to be Sefardi. Many of the parents in the girls’ school accused of “racism” teach in the single school in the town for boys and teach brothers of the girls who were not eligible to join the higher level girls school.

    Like the media the court never bothered to examine the facts. Gut emotion does not make for justice.

    Hence the 400 thousand protesters.