The story seemed as shocking as it was uncomplicated: In the Israeli town of Emanuel, fervently Orthodox Jews of Ashkenazi background demanded that their girls be educated separately from Orthodox Sephardi girls. After Israel’s Supreme Court ruled such segregation unlawful, black-hatted Orthodox men took to the streets in protest, seemingly in defense of racism in the name of religion.
That’s how the story played out in the American media, but don’t blame The New York Times: Major Israeli dailies on the Left and Right condemned the Ashkenazi parents who don’t want their children mingling with Sephardim. Yet subsequent reporting suggests that the story was more nuanced: The Ashkenazi parents were from a small and insular hasidic sect that resists encroachments of all kinds, and their access to the kinds of separate schools and educational tracks enjoyed by the larger hasidic and other haredi movements is limited. While some of their motivation was undoubtedly based on ethnicity, the more powerful force seemed to be an attempt to maintain their religious insularity.
This does not deny or excuse the prejudice that Sephardi Jews experience in Israel, or the many troubling ways religious groups there are trying to supplant Israeli authority and become a law unto themselves. It does suggest, however, that no issue in Israel is ever as simple as it seems.
There is a huge and growing divide in Israeli society between the religious and the secular. There is plenty of blame to go around on both sides, from haredi leaders who insist that the state accommodate their insularity and particularistic practices, to the media and secular Jews who prefer to assign the worst motivations to the “black hats.” Such disputes are echoed here in the Diaspora.
We hope that this incident demonstrates to haredi authorities the price of isolation and inspires leaders of that community to reach out to the non-Orthodox world in a spirit of education and enlightenment. And if haredi leaders seem prepared to make such gestures, the non-haredi world must be prepared to reciprocate.