The High Court justices made some emphatic statements last Thursday when they issued a precedent-setting ruling banning the segregation of Ashkenazi and Sephardi girls at the Beit Ya’akov Girls’ School in Emmanuel. The right to a separate education based on ethnic affiliation is not an absolute right when it clashes with the right to equality, the judges ruled.
The High Court was asked to hear the case after a second school – a reclusive Hasidic institution, most of whose students are Ashkenazi – opened its doors two years ago in the same building as the Beit Ya’akov Girls’ School, most of whose students are Sephardi.
The story borders on the unbelievable. In order to segregate between the two schools, which are located on different floors of the same building (the Ashkenazi school on top, the Sephardi on the bottom), the Hasidic school begins its academic year a few days before the Beit Ya’akov school. The two schools begin their days at different times, and students go on break at different times as well. They have separate entrances divided by a plaster wall, and the yard has been covered with jute screening to separate the students. Each group has its own uniform, and even the teachers have separate rooms. The Education Ministry tried to persuade the court that the separation was legitimate because the motivation was not ethnic or racial, but rather due to different worldviews and lifestyles. This reasoning is justified in Israeli law, which recognizes “cultural pluralism.”
Last week, the court tore off the cloak of hypocrisy. The judges denounced the school’s argument that the segregation was due to religious, not ethnic, considerations, calling it “camouflage for discrimination” cloaked in cultural disparity.
The importance of this ruling is immeasurable. No longer can claims of sectarian autonomy and multiculturalism be made to automatically justify discrimination. In April 2006, Judge Yehudit Tzur issued a courageous ruling, forbidding ultra-Orthodox Beit Ya’akov seminaries in Jerusalem from rejecting Mizrahi girls.
Discrimination in the education system cannot be accepted. In the last decade, the Supreme Court has addressed this disgraceful practice many times. In a landmark 2006 ruling, the High Court struck down a government decision delineating so-called national education focus zones, which had codified a method that allotted preferential status to just four Arab towns, in contrast with almost 500 Jewish towns.
In a dramatic, unanimous ruling by a panel of seven judges, the court ruled that “the government decision … does not dovetail with the principle of equality, for its results create unacceptable discrimination against members of the Arab sector in realizing their right to an education, thus making it unconstitutional.”
It is a bitter irony that the Supreme Court, which vociferously demanded that the government provide Arabs with equal opportunities in the name of Israel’s Jewish and democratic values, is now denouncing an attempt by Jews to blatantly discriminate against other segments of the Haredi Jewish population on the basis of ethnicity.
The story of how this state came into being is not limited to Israel’s wars. It is also the story of several landmark court rulings – both positive and negative – like the Rudolf Kastner case, Kafr Qasem, Brother Daniel and the Shalit family, Leah Shakdiel and Alice Miller, Elon Moreh and Jenin, the banning of torture, the Kaadan case, and others.
Two court rulings that make a clear, principled statement in favor of education equality and that strike down educational discrimination based on nationality and race, between Jews and Arabs, and Ashkenazi and Sephardi girls, are worthy of mention in the State of Israel’s historical record.
The writer is head of the School of Education at Hebrew University.