Sunday 20 June 2010

Religion Taken Too Far

The story involving the Haredi school in the West Bank settlement town of Immanuel has stolen all the news headlines this week. While it was a welcome change to see stories of the Gaza flotilla raid drop from the front pages, this was not the story that we had hoped to see replace it. It is a story which truly begs the question as to how far religion should be taken, and at what price.

The story stretches back three years when the problems in the school in Immanuel first began. The high school, which is funded by the Ministry of Education, caters to the religious girls of Immanuel. The settlement houses a group of Slonim Hassidim, who are Ashkenazim with their ancestors coming from Europe, in addition to a community of religious Sephardim. The girls of both groups are designated to attend the girls school at the centre of the disagreement. At some point, the Haredim from the Slonim sect decided that the Sephardi families are not sufficiently religious for them, and that they do not wish their daughters to attend the school with the Sephardi girls. The main objections cited were that the families watch TV, have internet at home and adhere to a dress code that is too lax. In response, the Ashkenazi families included 25 Sephardi girls who were sufficiently religious for their standards, then separated their daughters from the remainder of the Sephardi girls. This went as far as building separation walls and structures in the schools to divide the two streams.

The Sephardi objectors to this situation took their case to the High Court of Justice to voice their opposition to the separation. The High Court ruled against the separation and forced the school to remove the walls and the separation. In response, the Ashkenazi sect decided to withdraw their daughters from the school. Once again, the High Court was called upon to judge this situation, and ruled that it is illegal for the parents to keep their daughters out of school. When the parents continued to ignore the High Court rulings, they were advised that they could be jailed for not sending their daughters to school. After consulting with their Rabbis, they decided that it is preferable to go to jail rather than send their daughters to the school. Eventually on Thursday, 35 fathers were taken to jail for a 2 week period. A crowd of 100,000 gathered to create heroes out of these parents, and to demonstrate against the High Court rulings which, they claim, come out against the Haredi community and violate Jewish law.

The court ruled, quite rightly in my view, that discrimination of this type is not acceptable in any school in Israel. This is a critical stake in the ground by the court, and came from High Court Judge Edmond Levey, who is religiously observant. The Ashkenazi parents claim in their defence, that this is not discrimination but rather a case of being allowed to decide which type of people their daughters mix with in their school environment. It is true that every parent wishes to ensure that their child attends a school which allows them to mix only with "appropriate" other children. "Appropriate" usually refers to others who have similar values, and are seeking similar things from the schooling system. For the Slonim in Immanuel, the level of religiosity of other students in the school is an important factor in determining who is appropriate for their daughters to mix with. If they had opened a private school and financed it from their own funds, they may have the right to determine who will and will not attend the school. Given that this is a state school operated by public funds, certain rules are laid down by the Ministry of Education. One of the rules is that the school will be required to accept all pupils in the catchment area whose parents wish to send them to a state school. The concept of segregating a state school to prevent pupils who are "not appropriate" appears to be almost without precedent.

The attitude of the Slonim towards the state school in Immanuel is unfortunately representative of the general attitude of the Hassidic community in Israel towards the state. On the one hand, they contribute very little to the state. They mostly do not work and, therefore, do not pay taxes or National Insurance contributions. Their children do not serve in the army nor serve the state in an alternative national service framework like all other Israelis are expected to do. They have no qualms about drawing benefits or stipends via their learning institutions which are government funded. And now, they feel that they have the right to dictate who should be entitled to attend the state-funded schools that their children attend. All of this in the name of religion.

It would be true and fair to acknowledge that Judaism has been enjoying one of its greatest periods of study and enlightenment of all time, and this has been driven by the religious community. It is also fair to point out that the secular Israeli community has largely facilitated, funded and secured those who have undertaken the study and development of Jewish texts and Jewish law. It is, therefore, extremely unfortunate that the religious community chooses to accuse the secular community of acting against it in terms which are reserved for only the greatest anti-Semites in history. This comparison serves to desecrate G-d's name in the most unacceptable way.

It is my belief that Judaism does not promote the concept of driving a wedge between Jews of different flavours and colours. On the contrary, the Jewish religion encourages togetherness and tolerance, even if some Jews are not sufficiently observant for others. One can still be a good Jew when sending one's daughters to a school where other children watch TV at home. After all, Jews were forced to compromise in this way for centuries until we even had the luxury of sending our children to Jewish schools. The prime minister expressed the view of millions of Israelis when encouraging the parties to come to a compromise in view of the magnitude of external threats that Israelis and Jews around the world continue to face. We can ill-afford to tolerate in-fighting of this nature when we require our strength and resources for other battles.

The Ashkenazi parents will most likely spend their time in jail, and return to Immanuel to fight the next round of the battle. In their view, anything which is done in the name of G-d (as dictated by their leading Rabbis) is more justified than any other action. It is indeed unfortunate that these Rabbis are the ones who are misleading their flock into a conflict which cannot be justified nor tolerated.

This is a classic case of religion taken too far, and should be opposed in every way possible to preserve sanity and fair play in Israel.

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