Ultra-Orthodox Jews protest ruling to desegregate school
Tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews protested Thursday against a Supreme Court decision to jail parents who have refused to comply with their order to desegregate a religious girls' school.
Los Angeles Times
JERUSALEM — Tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews protested Thursday against a Supreme Court decision to jail parents who have refused to comply with their order to desegregate a religious girls' school.
Dressed in black hats and carrying posters denouncing the court as "fascists," the peaceful protesters continued Thursday afternoon until about 42 sets of parents turned themselves in to police custody to begin serving two-week sentences for contempt of court.
It was one of the largest protests in Jerusalem's history, and a reminder of the ultra-Orthodox minority's refusal to accept the authority of the state.
Also, the throngs of devout Jews showed to what extent the ultra-Orthodox live by their own rules, some of them archaic, while wielding disproportionate power in the modern state of Israel.
Parents of European, or Ashkenazi, descent at the Beit Yakov girls' school in the West Bank settlement of Emanuel don't want their daughters to study with schoolgirls of Mideast and North African descent, known as Sephardim. The state-funded independent school enrolls all students but maintains separate studies that largely keep the Ashkenazi students apart from Sephardi ones.
The Ashkenazi parents insist they aren't racist but want to keep the classrooms segregated, as they have been for years, arguing that the families of the Sephardi girls aren't religious enough.
Israel's Supreme Court rejected that argument and ruled that the 42 sets of parents who have defied the integration efforts by keeping their daughters from school were to be jailed Thursday for two weeks.
Police spokesman Micky Rosenfeld said about 100,000 people converged in downtown Jerusalem in support of the Ashkenazi parents. An additional 20,000 demonstrated in the central city of Bnei Brak. He said 10,000 police were deployed.
Parents of the Ashkenazi girls insist the separation at the school is based on religion, not skin color, saying Sephardi customs are generally less stringent in terms of dress and conduct, such as watching television or using the Internet. Many Ashkenazi reject outside culture and don't have televisions in their homes.
Ashkenazi leaders denied ethnicity played a role in the school's decision.
"There is not a drop of racism," Deputy Health Minister Rabbi Yakov Litzman, a leader in the ultra-Orthodox party United Torah Judaism, told Israel Radio. "The problem is that the communities adhere to different standards."
Not so, according to Yonatan Danino, spokesman for the nonprofit organization that petitioned the Supreme Court to overturn the policy.
"Sephardic Jewry is no less pious, and the girls of these families suffered clear discrimination," he said.
The court agreed, ruling last year that the practice was based on discrimination. Comparing the case to desegregation of the American South in the 1950s, the court ordered the separation at the school to end.
Parents to date have refused to comply, withholding their daughters from school and saying their religious convictions trump the court order. The dispute culminated in a courtroom standoff this week, during which justices ordered about 84 parents to either abide by its order or go to jail.
Sephardi religious leaders have not publicly criticized the demonstration or the Ashkenazi parents' conduct.
Nissim Zeev, a lawmaker from the Orthodox Sephardic political party Shas, said the issue should have been settled by a rabbinical court and that the parents' prison sentence was "puzzling." He insisted the Sephardi girls had the right to choose to attend a mixed school.
The protests come amid a recent flare-up of tensions between Israel's secular and religious citizens. In a separate decision this week, the Supreme Court ruled that special government subsidies given to support religious students must end next year because they discriminate against nonreligious students.
Violent protests also rocked the cities of Jaffa and Ashkelon in recent weeks as the ultra-Orthodox protested development projects they say will disturb ancient Jewish graves.
Israel's ultra-Orthodox minority of some 650,000 Jews — slightly less than 10 percent of the nation's population — is an insular community that has been known to riot over the state's intrusion into its affairs.
Material from The Associated Press is included in this report.
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