Blog of the International Journal of Constitutional Law

A Supreme Court vs. Religious Authorities Showdown in Israel

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.



3 responses to “A Supreme Court vs. Religious Authorities Showdown in Israel”

  1. Anonymous Avatar

    Could the Supreme Court constitutionally order the government to stop funding the school?

  2. Ran Hirschl Avatar

    Yes, it can and it did. It is hard to know whether this will be implemented come the new school year. Apparently, the school does have some independent funding sources. The Court also ordered the Ministry of Education to revoke the school’s license. Because the government depends upon religious parties’ support, the Ministry of Education would rather not escalate the situation by halting funding or revoking the license. This stand-off comes on the heels of a political crisis earlier in the year over the removal of an ancient Jewish burial site in order to build a secured triage room in a hospital. So the government would do everything it can to defer to the Court and hope for some compromise without resorting to extreme measures.

  3. Raanan Isseroff Avatar
    Raanan Isseroff

    This is not a “church and state” issue. The parties both came to an agreement. (Church and church issue?) The wonder is why a secular court is butting into a purely religious matter?

    The main problem is that the supreme court:
    1. Has no constitution to base its ruling upon as Israel has NO constitution. Israel’s supreme court arbitrarily rules on issues, sometimes for religious things most times against.
    2. There is a demographic disconnect in that the supreme court of Israel today represents a minority to half of the population.

    According to statistics quoted in the Goldstone report 50 to 55% of Israel is today Orthodox Jews. The Supreme court however is not just representing a non-constitutionally based minority but it is antagonistic to the religious residents of Israel as well! They are continually poking their fingers into religious rulings such as: The state definition of who is considered a Jew and other nit picky things like who will sit on each towns religious council. If the United States were to tell the Catholic Church who can be a Catholic and whom not, I think people would be similarly upset.

    The court at one point demanded that a reformed and conservative rabbi must sit on each town and city religious council, yet, less than 4 percent of all Israelis are reformed or conservative!

    Worse, what are the town religious councils overseeing? Kashrut of food, Mikvas (ritual baths for women) and burials.

    The only thing relavant for reformed and conservative is the burial issue as they dont use the mikva and dont keep kosher (some conservative do keep kosher and these usually rely on the Orthodox anyways. Both Reformed and Conservative only buy their sefer Torahs from Orthodox so the whole point is ludicrous)

    The issue is as well is that Mizrahi is much less religious than the Chassidim which is not a point of culture, but rather of educational quality. Mizrahi girls are very secular while the Chassidic girls are not (although many of the girls are good friends)

    The last point is that both “disputants” are not at odds at all with each other! The whole issue is simply being flamed by an antagonistic anti-religious Supreme court which hates its own “more-religious” and sees a chance to make fools of them publically. This is an old story in Israel.
    Raanan Isseroff
    New York City

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