The ongoing affair of the Beit Yaakov girls' school in Emmanuel probably deserves some comment. The story so far: at the beginning of April, the school was fined for 'discriminating' against Sephardi girls. In the latest twist, parents are being accused of 'contempt of court for setting up a separate, privately-funded education stream for 'Ashkenazi' pupils. (Except that, of 74 pupils, 25 are Sephardi. Go figure):
"The parents, with the backing of the Ashkenazi Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) leadership, are challenging the court's authority to intervene in policies at the Beit Yaakov school, which is part of the independently run but state-funded Hinuch Atzma'i ("Independent Education") school system. The parents and school administrators contend that the separate classes are due not to the students' different ethnic backgrounds, but to their different educational needs, which primarily stem from their different levels of religious observance.
Three weeks ago, the High Court ordered the Hinuch Atzma'i network to pay a NIS 5,000 fine for every day that it continues refusing to integrate the school.
At the same time, it scheduled today's exceptional hearing, to which about 130 parents and teachers from the so-called "Hasidic" Ashkenazi track have been summoned to explain why they should not also be ruled in contempt of the court's earlier ruling.
Meanwhile, representatives of the Noar Kahalacha nonprofit organization, which filed the initial High Court petition, will use the hearing to seek continued sanctions for failure to comply with the integration order.
Avraham Luria, whose wife is one of the teachers who will be attending today's hearing, insisted that the separation of the students is not based on ethnic origin. The Hasidic track is simply for girls from more rigorously observant families, he said - and in fact, of the 74 students in this track, 25 are Sephardi, he added. This track is now entirely funded from private contributions, he said."
Predictably, the leftwing and anti-Israel blogosphere has spun this affair as an example of 'discrimination on grounds of skin colour'. While there is never any justification for racism, cultural differences seem to be the main factor here - Sephardim have always been more open to outside influences, while religious Ashkenazim have tended to look inward and cut themselves off from the outside world.
Maimonides, the great medieval rabbi and philosopher, was also physician to Saladdin. This sort of typical Sephardi synthesis of the spiritual and the worldly never existed in eastern Europe. Had Maimonides been alive today, he might well have used the internet and watched TV.
In the Beit Yaakov case, the Ashkenazi parents' main gripe seems to be that the Sephardi girls, by and large, are not religious enough for their standards. It may all boil down to something as basic as whether the girls are being corrupted by watching TV.
Let's not pretend that Ashkenazim and Sephardim follow the same religious customs: they don't.
Ashkenazi orthodox schools do have the right to give priority to children from similar backgrounds and traditions.
At the very root of the problem is this: the Sephardi orthodox simply do not have an educational infrastructure of their own. Although Shas has improved matters, in my view, Sephardim are still suffering the effects of the destruction of their orthodox heritage in Arab lands. That's why Sephardim have adopted Yiddish and Ashkenazi orthodox customs - they have become 'lithuanianised', as Shmuel Trigano puts it. What we need are more schools teaching Sephardi orthodoxy, but from which Ashkenazim would not be excluded, of course.