In August 2009 I wrote here about the Israeli Supreme Court ruling that involved a clash between the right to sectarian autonomy in education, and equality rights. A girls-only publicly-funded religious school introduced separation between an educational stream for Ashkenazi Hasidic community girls, and a different stream for Sephardic (Mizrahi) girls. The school’s main claim has been that authentic differences in culture and tradition between the Hasidic community and Sephardic community justify the segregation.
In a nutshell, the Court held 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 right when it collides with the overarching right to equality. It found the two-stream policy unjustifiably discriminatory, based predominantly on ethnicity, and essentially masking a reality of a two-tier schooling system, with “elite” education provided in the school’s Hasidic stream as opposed to a more “blue collar” one in the other. In some respects then, this case resembles the UKSC ruling concerning an apparently discriminatory admission criteria in a North London Jewish school. (The UKSC cited the Israeli Supreme Court ruling in its Dec. 2009 decision). In a broader sense, it reminds us of the debate in India concerning personal status law. Hovering over these cases is the larger question of unified state authority versus autonomus religious authority, and the applicability of general constitutional norms to matters of religious tradition.
At any rate, nearly a year after the decision was rendered, school authorities and the Hasidic families whose daughters attend the “elite” stream, still refuse to accept the Court ruling and continue to defy follow-up Court orders for abolishing the ethnicity-based segregation. They implicitly question the Sephardic girls’ “truth to Torah” way of life, dress code, and so on. Initially, the Supreme Court imposed hefty fines for each day of non-compliance. As defiance and contempt of court orders continued, imprisonment of recalcitrant fathers ensued (ethnic discrimination aside, mothers have been left out of it in order to take care of their children . . .). This brought about mass demonstrations by Hasidic Jews, one was estimated at over 100,000 participants. Religious leaders went on to question state authority, to vilify the Supreme Court, and describe its judges as apostates. Most political leaders remain vague or mum as the coalition government depends on religious parties’ support. The stand-off is about to enter its third week, with dozens of Hasidic parents behind bars and Supreme Court judges insist that no concessions are expected unless the 2009 decision is implemented in full. The incoming Jewish Sabbath provides all involved parties with a God-given time-out for reconsideration.