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Religious racism in Isaraeli schools

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(sourc: Jerusalem Post)

There are moments when I find myself truly ashamed to be part of Israeli society. I had a moment like that recently as I stood outside the Supreme Court with women from “Ahoti ”, a Sephardic feminist organization waiting for a ruling on the religious girls’ school in Emanuel where racism is so entrenched that parents will do all it takes to keep antiquated Jim-Crow-like separations in place.

What is happening in the Beit Yakov school is nothing less than the formalization of racism. Here the school implements a policy in which Sephardic girls are not allowed to be in a class with Ashkenazi or “Hasidic” girls, and they have different teachers, different classes, and even different recess times and a fence between their yards just to ensure that the two groups of girls do not heaven forbid mingle during the breaks. It’s not just Emanuel, but in other religious girls’ schools around the country, such as Elad, where parents protested to ensure that a Sephardic girl would not be allowed in to the class.

Protested! There have been reports from around the country of girls being rejected or ejected from schools because of the color of their skin or their last name.And even though the Supreme Court ruled last week that the apartheid has to end, the school and parents are refusing to comply, thus rejecting civil as well as moral obligations. This is not the post-Civil war south but Israel of 2008, where I would have expected more people to be outraged byt this blatant racism. “What’s happening in the Beit Yakov is outrageous,” said Yael ben Yefet, one of the leaders of Ahoti. “The girls get the message that they are deformed, that they are less good, that there is something inherently wrong with them. This happens everywhere in Israel, but it is the most prominent in this school.” This story comes on the heels of a similarly shocking exposure of racist practice in a religious school in Petach Tikva. Earlier this year, in a state religious school, the school physically and academically separated the Ethiopian girls from the rest of the school – separate teachers, separate curricula, separate rooms, separate recess. My kids and I spent some time last year at a predominantly Ethiopian preschool in Mevasseret, shortly after the Petach Tikva36came to light. One morning, as the kids all played together in the sand, the teacher said, “This community is very hurt. They just don’t understand how such a deep-rooted hatred can exist in the country that they dreamed of coming to.” The teacher suggested that as a form of healing, kids from around the country come and play with Ethiopian kids in preschool. It sounds so basic, and yet that basic sense of morality and equality is so profoundly lacking. It’s no coincidence that many these stories of racism take place in religious schools. Religious schools are drenched with practices that created social hierarchies between those who are “more” and those who are “less”, or those who are “in” and those who are “out”. Indeed, for my doctoral research on religious school culture, I discovered multiple hierarchies intersecting and intertwining in religious schools via a discourse that takes for granted Ashkenazi culture as morally, intellectually and religiously superior to Mizrahi or Sephardi culture.

The demeaning of Mizrahi kids is sometimes subtle, but oftentimes strikingly overt. It may take the form of teachers casually referring to the “Ashkenazi intellect”, and “Mizrahi emotion,” or where highest tracks become predominantly Ashkenazi and lowest tracks predominantly Sephardi, based presumably on “intelligence”, or where Mizrahi students are assumed to be “problems”, on the margins of society, teetering on the edge of an abyss or at high risk of being deemed the worst of all – non-religious. Mizrahi students are penalized and suspended more often then Ashkenazi students, they are reprimanded for the same offenses that Ashkenazi kids get away with, and they are lectured on how to avoid things like dropping out, getting pregnant, or turning on a light switch on Shabbat. In religious schools, discriminatory practices are rationalized on the basis of “religiousness.” That is, whereas in non-religious schools, discrimination revolves primarily around academics and class, in religious schools, there is an entire extra level of patronizing in which Mizrahi kids are assumed to be less religious. United Torah Judaism MK Avraham Ravitz, in an attempt to “explain” the 36in Emanuel and Elad, said yesterday that “the ethnic discrimination stems first and foremost from the desire to maintain the school’s educational atmosphere….We educate on internal and external values and there are differences amongst the different ethnic groups.” In other words, Sephardim have different “values” that threaten the “educational atmosphere.” Mizrahi students are thus viewed as being on the margins educationally, economically and morally – and in religious schools, these hierarchies ultimately conflate into the view of Mizrahi students as less “religious”. This language of Sephardic culture as “threatening” to religiousness is rampant. Yair Sheleg, in his book Dati’im Chadashim [The New Religious] documents Ashkenazi fear of “contamination” by Mizrahi families. He writes that the 21st century version of “white flight” is among Ashkenazi religious families. That is, as soon as parents see that Mizrahi students are entering “their” schools, they go and open up a new elitist “torani” school in the name of creating a “higher” religious level, but is in fact simply Mizrahi-free. These religious hierarchies are the latest version of 19th century colonialist racism of the “Great Chain of Being” and “Social Darwinism”. Shlomo Deshen and Moshe Shokeid brilliantly write in Dor Hatemura [Generation in Transition] that Mizrahi and Ashkenazi religious identities take different forms – not superior and inferior, but simply different. Mizrahi religiousness is transmitted via people, families and traditions, while Ashkenazi religiousness is transmitted via the written word. So a kid who spends Shabbat with her family and flicks a light switch is keeping the faith in Sephardi culture, whereas a kid who spends Shabbat all alone but does not flick the light switch is keeping the faith in Ashkenazi culture. But in state religious schools in Israel in 2008, only the Ashkenazi version of religiousness counts, and those who don’t abide by the Ashkenazi culture else are just inferior outsiders. “In order for a girl to make it in this system,” said Vardit of the organization Tmura, “girls in Beit Yakov are expected to give up their entire culture, everything they know and love from at home. They have to be willing to accept that their spiritual heritage is inferior.” As I discussed these36at home, my 11-year old daughter was dumfounded. “Why won’t they let the girls into class?” she demanded. She could not get her head around this racist reality. Kids can be very wise – wiser, in fact, than many adults. My daughter understands how such practices violate our basic humanity.