Old-Fashioned Discrimination, New-Style Battle


On the first of September, Yael (not her real name), a 10-yearold
student at a Beit Ya’acov elementary school for girls,
arrived at what had been her school for the past four years.
However, upon arrival this time, she was told to enter her school through
a new gate. “From now on,” the teacher told her, “this is going to be your
entrance to the school.” Later that day, she discovered that her classmates
were all of Sephardic extraction. She was also told she should have no contact
whatsoever with any of her former Ashkenazi classmates. At the end
of this first sad day of school, making her way home full of shame and
hurt, she encountered Sarah (not her real name), her beloved friend for
the past four years, and was shocked to learn that they had different uniforms
and different timetables for arriving at school. Yael’s life, as she knew
it, had changed forever.

Yael is one of 180 Sephardic pupils attending the separate school for
Sephardim in the city of Emanuel in Israel. Her story sheds light on the
shocking facts regarding segregation in education within Jewish communities
in Israel. I write this article to call attention to this segregation and
to propose innovative ways to combat it, from my unique perspective as a
public-interest attorney representing disenfranchised communities and as
a legal scholar criticizing discriminatory mechanisms through the law.

Ethnic discrimination has been a continual struggle for Sephardim in
Israeli society since the establishment of the state of Israel. Upon arrival
from their countries of origin, Sephardic Jews were categorized as
“Mizrahim” (“Easterners”, or Jews from Arab or Muslim countries), a
social and cultural category that was invented just for them at that time.
However, though established in the past, this category is still meaningful
sixty years later. Mizrahim in Israel continue to suffer from structural
injustices. Statistics prove they have a high unemployment rate, comprise
a disproportionate percentage of Israel’s prison and social welfare populations,
and suffer substantial underachievement in education. These deficiencies
have held steady or even increased over Israel’s six decades of
statehood. (See Oren Yiftachel, Nation-Building or Ethnic Fragmentation?
Ashkenazim, Mizrahim and Arabs in the Israeli Frontier, 1 Space and Polity
2, 149-169 (1997); Hubert Lu-Yon and Rachel Kalush, Housing in Israel:
Policy and Inequality (1994). Although Mizrahim today comprise a larger
share of formally educated society, recent research indicates that the gap
itself between Mizrahim and Ashkenazim in education has grown in the
last decades. See Momi Dahan, “He is (Not) Entitled—Has the Gap in
Education Narrowed?” in Education and Social Justice in Israel—On Equal
Opportunities in Education 19 (Samuel Shay et al, 2003).)

A clear example of ethnic discrimination is revealed in the story that
began this article. Yael’s experience exposes the reality of ethnic segregation
that is currently being practiced at a religious elementary school for
girls in the city of Emanuel. The students have been physically separated
within this school based solely on ethnicity. The school, which was once
one school, has now been virtually divided into two schools, with the
Sephardic students separated from the Ashkenazi students and the two
groups housed in two isolated buildings. The school administration has
taken steps to further separate these buildings, using such shocking tactics
as building a concrete wall to prevent any form of interaction between
the two groups. Furthermore, the school enclosed the Sephardic students’
playground area behind a plastic cloth fence (Cloth of Utah), to conceal
any view of them as they played outside. This shunning treatment recalls
the historical treatment of leprosy patients who were sent to live in separate
colonies, or the racial segregation of black students from white stu-
dents in the United States, which was one of the main triggers for the civil
rights movement. The school’s administration has rationalized its actions
by going so far as to stigmatize Mizrahi culture and individuals as suffering
from “lower spiritual levels” than the Ashkenazim.

This repulsive and mentally abusive treatment towards Mizrahi students
has already inflicted profound damage. The students have expressed
deep feelings of pain, discrimination, shame, confusion, poor self-esteem,
and inferiority to their Ashkenazi fellows.

However, the elementary school in Emanuel is only one of many in
the Beit Ya’acov chain of schools which discriminate, on a regular basis,
against their Sephardic students vis-à-vis their Ashkenazi classmates.
Moreover, similar allegations have recently been made, and confirmed,
concerning other ultra-Orthodox schools in such places as Beitar-Elit,
Elad and Jerusalem, where students were required, in their registration
forms, to supply seemingly irrelevant details regarding the ethnic origin of
their parents and similar data clearly aimed at collecting as much information
as possible to enable the school administration to build an ethnic profile
of prospective students. There are even cases where students who had
an Ashkenazi father and, consequently, an Ashkenazi surname, but who
physically resembled their Sephardic mother, were not admitted to the
Ashkenazi class, whilst their friends with similar ethnic profile who bore
a more “European”-like appearance were found eligible to attend this
same Ashkenazi class.

This “separate but equal” mentality—which was long ago declared
unconstitutional by the U.S. Supreme Court—tries to justify giving different
groups of people separate facilities or services by claiming that each
group still receives an equal quality of service. However, this mentality and
practice are far from being equal; on the contrary, it promotes a distorted
perception of the ‘other’ and only perpetuates separation, racism, abusive
treatment, culturally-based notions of ethnic hierarchy and, most of all,
immense pain.

One of the most troubling facts about this discriminatory apparatus is
its institutionalized character. Although Beit Ya’acov schools are considered
an informal independent school system, separate and different from
Israel’s formal state school system and operating with educational autonomy,
the Beit Ya’acov schools in fact enjoy official recognition by Israel’s
Ministry of Education and receive a substantial portion of their annual
budget from the state’s coffers. In other words, not only does the Ministry
of Education refrain from interfering with the discriminatory practices of
these schools—on the excuse of reluctance to interfere with these communities’
autonomy—the Ministry even finances this discrimination with
Israeli taxpayers’ money.

The Legal Battle against Discrimination in Ultra-Orthodox
Education. The Traditional Path—Too Little, Too Late

The phenomenon of ethnic-based discrimination in Israel’s education system
has yet to receive appropriate public or legal attention, as would be
expected of a society that clings to the ideal of equality as Israel does. The
few legal battles fought thus far on this issue have centered on Israel’s
administrative courts, where the defendants were the local authorities
where the discriminating school was located, and the plaintiffs had asked
the court to declare the criteria for admission to these schools as being
discriminatory. Based on facts proved before it, the administrative high
court has ruled in the past that the quota system which then governed Beit
Ya’acov Schools (permitting no more than 30% of students to be of
Mizrahi origin) was in fact prohibited by law, and that the local authorities
should be held responsible for enforcing the anti-discrimination laws
in their community.

In response, the schools eliminated the quota practice as a formal one,
and embraced a new practice based on meritocracy alone, which “miraculously”
resulted in no more than 30% of Beit Ya’acov students being of
Sephardic origin,

It was obvious that a different legal course of action needed to be
taken. That is where the Tmura Center, joined by the Achoti organization,
stepped in.

The New Legal Agenda

Tmura (means both “change” and “exchange” in Hebrew) is a nonprofit
organization that offers pro-bono legal representation to disenfranchised
minorities in Israel, including women, Ethiopian Jews, and Mizrahim, on
issues ranging from education to housing and land distribution, to rape,
sexual offenses and violence against women. Achoti (My Sister) was
founded by Mizrahi feminist social activists seeking to bring social justice
issues to the center of public discourse and to enhance women’s solidarity.
Tmura—which was founded by and employs only attorneys who are
graduates of ISEF’s scholarship and leadership training programs—has an
agenda of reform.(ISEF—the International Sephardic Educational
Foundation, seeks to narrow Israel’s wide social and economic gaps by
providing equal access to higher education for capable young Israelis from
disadvantaged communities.)

The organization maintains that Israel’s social wealth should be redistributed
using private market principles, internalizing the high costs of
discrimination and reframing it as financially unprofitable behavior for the
discriminating parties. Using the private tort law mechanism, Tmura compels
governmental organizations and corporate bodies to face the individual
who has suffered discrimination in the courtroom, to acknowledge the
unfairness of its policy, and to pay for its harmful consequences—thus
ultimately inducing these organizations to seek a better, non-discriminatory

In the Beit Ya’acov school case, the purpose of our intervention is to
stop the discrimination immediately, so that all students may learn fairly
and equally together in the same classroom. Additionally, we seek compensation
for the school’s Mizrahi students for the shame and disgrace
they have endured.

We are therefore working on several simultaneous legal planes. First,
we have sought an immediate injunction against the school, to compel it
to eliminate all sorts of discrimination to which the girls are subjugated.
Second, we have asked for immediate government intervention to reassign
government funds allocated to the school; those funds would henceforth
be administered by a nondiscriminatory professional committee appointed
by the Ministry of Education. Additionally, a formal complaint was filed
with the police, demanding the immediate enforcement of laws strictly
and clearly banning any discriminatory practices at the school.

In my opinion, it is the duty of Israeli courts to set a precedent in such
cases and bring about systemic change with the goal of abolishing discrimination
of this kind. Such rulings would encourage others from this community
to come forward and fight this discrimination, which has gone on
far too long. The religious community should no longer feel its practices
are beyond the reach of Israel’s legal system.

The Main Difficulties in Using the Legal System

The main problem in combating anti-Mizrahi discrimination in the education
system is that this discrimination is largely hidden, and there is little
or no public awareness of this issue. While the situation at the Beit
Ya’acov school in Emanuel has supplied concrete evidence of the larger
problems within the education system, using this case as a “model case”
imposes some other difficulties which are unique to this specific case.

The ultra-Orthodox community is usually an extremely closed society,
with many issues kept inside the community and not addressed in
Israel’s state secular courts—especially issues of discrimination against
minorities (women and Sephardim). In the past, Tmura representatives
have proposed to the leading rabbis of this community to take these issues
to court; however, these suggestions were repeatedly rejected, as this community
regards Israel’s courts as illegitimate agents of a secular system
whose very existence this community opposes. However, in the Emanuel
case, Tmura and Achoti have, for the first time, been given permission by
Sephardic rabbinical authorities to take this very disturbing issue to a secular
court due to its severe circumstances. It is indeed rare for the rabbis
of the community to grant permission to take this issue before a secular
court. Therefore, it is obvious that this opportunity for an action is rare
and precious.

One last objection to legal recourse as a solution to discrimination is
its inherently limited social impact. No single court case can change such
deeply embedded practices. Therefore, in addition to taking legal action,
public awareness about this situation has also been raised through a strategic
campaign, which climaxed with a demonstration against both the
Ministry of Education and the leadership of the Beit Ya’acov Schools, held
in the very heart of Jerusalem’s ultra-Orthodox neighborhood.


Yael’s story is not hers alone; it is not even the story of her 180 classmates;
it is rather the story of many Sephardic pupils in Israel today.
Discriminatory practices against them within the educational system are
not limited to the ultra-Orthodox community. The mainstream Orthodox
educational system is also regularly accused of discriminatory practices,
mainly vis-à-vis Ethiopians but also Sephardim. With Ethiopians, the segregation
is more blatant, as was recently demonstrated in the case of
Yeshurun School in Petach Tikva, where four Ethiopian girls were totally
separated from the rest of the students. Yet with regard to Mizrahim,
more subtle practices are also common. For example, the Zeitlin Middle
and High School for Girls in Ramat-Gan maintains de facto separate
classes for the “different” girls. At the prestigious Netiv Meir Yeshiva in
Jerusalem for boys, the number of Mizrahi students never exceeds a certain
low percentage. Similar practices have even been found at some of
the top schools in the state secular school system, where such discriminatory
practices are truly impossible to trace and combat effectively, since
from a legal perspective, it is of course easier to fight against the more blatant
and traceable ones.

Within Israel’s education system, the Mizrahi community has been
deprived over the decades of full and equal opportunity for education,
resulting in low achievements and an absence of leadership within the
community. This reality calls for concerted action to ensure that future generations
of young Mizrahi Jews in Israel do not grow up with the negative
impact of discrimination on their future; rather, we need to educate and
cultivate strong leaders within their communities and ensure that they
enjoy the true equal protection of the law. This struggle can serve as another
breach in the wall, leading to an equal and fair society for all Israel’s citizens
and strengthening Israel’s long-term sustainability as a whole.