Equality in education continues to be a main issue in the ongoing political and culture wars within Israeli society. On August 6, the Supreme Court of Israel, seating as High Court of Justice released an important ruling in a case dealing with a clash between the right to sectarian autonomy in education, and equality rights. In a nutshell, the Court ruled that although the right to cultural pluralism in education is recognized by Israeli law, religious affiliation as a basis for autonomous schooling is not an absolute claim when it collides with the overarching right to equality.
The background may seem quite exotic to those who are not familiar with the Israeli socio-political scene. An ultra-Orthodox girls school in the predominantly religious West Bank settlement town of Emmanuel established what was essentially a two-tier, ethnically-segregated, split school. One path was for students of Ashkenazi descent (Jews of European origin), most of whom followed the Hasidic tradition. The other path was for students of Sephardi (or Mizrahi) descent. Professor Edna Ullman-Margalit writes in Ha’Aretz (one of Israel’s most credible newspapers) that: “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 Ashkenazi school begins its academic year a few days before the Sephardi 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.” Pupils were automatically assigned to one of the two paths based on ethnic origin. The thinly disguised subtext was that of Ashkenazi superiority, ethnicity-based separation between elite and “blue-collar” education, and the like.
An NGO committed to fighting discrimination in education took the case to the Court. The school authorities (strangely, backed by the Education Ministry, which provides partial funding for the school), tried to persuade the Court that the separation was legitimate due to the different worldviews, traditions, and lifestyles of the two communities. Although in this case, the ethnicity-based segregation was blunt, the school’s “legitimate religious difference” claim may find some support in other conventions such as the long-standing practice of parallel nomination of both an Ashkenazi Chief Rabbi alongside a Sepharadi Chief Rabbi to oversee the provision of religious services to their respective communities. Synagogues for the two communities are often separated as some oral traditions, religious customs and practices have evolved in different ways over centuries of scattered contact between the two communities. The two groups are also represented by different political parties, and follow different spiritual leaders.
But the Court did not buy the two religious traditions argument. It unanimously 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 Court ordered the school to nullify pronto all discriminatory practices against Sephardi pupils, and abolish all protocols that separate between Ashkenazi and Sephardic students. It also ordered the Education Ministry to make use of all the legal means it possesses to rectify the situation, including revoking the school’s license and stopping the institution’s funding.
All of that, lest we forget, happens in a West Bank settlement, with the political baggage that these settlements carry. And as Ullman-Margalit correctly notes, this ruling comes merely a couple of years after the Court struck down a government policy of delineating so-called “national education focus zones” which had allotted preferential status to just four Arab towns, as opposed to nearly 500 Jewish towns (Arab-Israelis comprise approximately 20% of Israel’s citizenry). I suppose that optimists could say that courtroom battles, bitter as they may be, are a sign of an overall normalcy, and at any rate, are immeasurably more civilized than any other battles.