Among the problems in the Jewish State are some of the Jews.
The Supreme Court is hearing a petition concerned with the violation of a previous court order that an ultra-Orthodox girls school in Emanuel must integrate Ashkenazi and Sephardi pupils.
Ashkenazi parents are keeping their girls away from school rather than integrate, and claiming that they would rather go to jail than to violate their religious norms. To them, the interference of the state in their education, despite the financing of the education by the state, is a violation of their religious freedom.
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The ultra-Orthodox deputy of Jerusalem's mayor is quoted as saying, "We do not accept in our schools Sephardim, Ethiopians, or monkeys." He denies saying it, but two witnesses claim that they heard him.
I cannot remember language like that from the time I spent at the University of Georgia in the mid-1960s.
I am not aware of any commandment in the tangle of Judaic doctrines that rules against ethnic mixture among Jews. However, the rabbi who speaks for the refusniks of Emanuel asserts that families of the Sephardi girls are not sufficiently learned in Judaic lore. They are not ultra-Orthodox Jews like his father and grandfather. He faults them for a lack of discipline in adhering to the strictness of kashrut and other matters. He also notes that ultra-Orthodox have a tradition of separating themselves into communities, and using congregational affiliation as important considerations in deciding with whom it is appropriate to study, to pray, and to marry.
This is not the only instance of ultra-Orthodox congregations refusing the authority of Israel. Efforts by the Education Ministry to impose a basic curriculum on ultra-Orthodox schools have met with limited success. In many schools there is no teaching of history, geography, science, mathematics, and languages other than Yiddish, Aramaic, and Hebrew. In previous notes I have described ultra-Orthodox Israelis who do not know what is a map, cannot identify the countries neighboring Israel, and do not know what is Africa.
The products of ultra-Orthodox schools have no skills other than continued learning, or teaching in the same kinds of schools. They contribute to one of Israel's problems compared to other countries that aspire to modernity: a low percentage of the adult population that is working.
Demographic projections are hopefully wrong, but they show the high fecundity of ultra-Orthodox families threatening the well being of Israel in another generation or two.
Ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazim have refused, on principal, to accept positions as ministers in the government, but they do take positions as deputy ministers in cases when the prime minister agrees not to appoint a minister. It is a fiction of the kind that religious Jews construct to live within their norms but also to benefit from the violation of the norms.
The Deputy Minister of Health is Ashkenazi and ultra-Orthodox. He insisted on constructing the emergency room of the Ashkelon hospital 300 meters from the main hospital in order to avoid disturbing ancient graves that might be Jewish.
It took a great hullabaloo by the physicians of Israel and the residents of Ashkelon, with the help of the mass media, to convince the Prime Minister to intervene and change the decision of the Deputy Minister of Health. It is too early to know if construction will actually go forward, against the declaration of ultra-Orthodox rabbis to prevent it with their bodies.
The strength of ultra-Orthodox nay-saying is not only a result of the 16 or so Knesset members affiliated with ultra-Orthodox parties. If they are not members of a government, no aspiring leader wants to annoy them beyond the point where they would refuse to join a subsequent government.
Aside from their representation in politics, ultra-Orthodox Jews also benefit from the vicarious identification of Orthodox, traditional, and not a few secular Israelis. Individuals remember grandpa, or have some genetic trigger linked to Yiddishkeit that makes them vulnerable to financial appeals, as well as opposing any efforts of the police and other authorities from imposing the same weight of the state on religious Jews as they impose on the rest of us.
This vicarious identification is part of the strength enjoyed by Religious Nationalist Orthodox settlers insisting on staying in communities throughout the West Bank, including those defined as "illegal." It contributed to David ben Gurion's decision 60 years ago, when he gave in to the demands of ultra-Orthodox leaders to exempt their boys from compulsory military service. Activists insist that their study of the Torah contributes more than the IDF to Israel's defense.
Emanuel is a small community, mostly ultra-Orthodox, with about 300 families, east of the 1967 border in the northern part of the West Bank. Much larger ultra-Orthodox communities, Beitar Ilit and Modiin Ilit, have also been built in the territories. They reflect the pressure of large families against the cost of housing in the established ultra-Orthodox communities of Bnei Brak and Jerusalem. The new communities have produced an awakening of territorialism among the ultra-Orthodox. Previously their politicians left the defense of settlements to rivals among Religious Nationalist Orthodox politicians.
Ramat Shlomo is an ultra-Orthodox community that got in the news due to sensitivities of the Obama administration. It is also east of the 1967 border, but within the Jerusalem municipality as defined by Israel. Ramat Shlomo has been a substantial neighborhood with thousands of residents for 15 years or so, without noticeable comment by Palestinians until the Obama administration demanded the cessation of construction in new Jewish neighborhoods of Jerusalem.
Our own neighborhood of French Hill is also treif according to the Obama Rabbinate. Recently there has been a movement of both Arabs and ultra-Orthodox Jews into what had been a Jewish neighborhood that combined secular and Orthodox families.
Conversations deal with who would one rather not have as neighbors. I have made no survey, but have found individuals preferring Arabs over the ultra-Orthodox, the ultra-Orthodox over Arabs, those who want neither, and some who do not care.
Does this note reflect my infection with anti-Semitism? I plead not guilty, but admit to an occasional temptation.
Ira Sharkansky (Emeritus)
Department of Political Science
Hebrew University of Jerusalem