The remedying of prejudices and attitudes within society is a very slow process. What once presented itself in Israel as a potentially acute societal problem of two distinct societies – middle class Jews of European decent who comprised “the establishment” and an underclass of Jews from Arab countries – is no longer the lingering issue it once was.
Things have come a long way since statehood. This is not to say that the problem no longer exists, only that it has reached a level where blatant discrimination is no longer an accepted and tolerated fact of life, at least not on the official level.
Surprisingly, to this day, discrimination unfortunately persists in one part of one particular sector of Israeli society.
This week, the Supreme Court is scheduled to hear a petition against the Immanuel Local Council over its policy of segregating Ashkenazi and Sephardi girls in its Beit Yaakov school. (Please note that each Beit Yaakov school is completely independent and that the Beit Yaakov schools in Canada are autonomous. Incidentally, Bais Yaakov of Toronto in particular is internationally recognized for its inclusive admission policies.)
A further motion has been filed in Tel Aviv District Court citing the Beit Yaacov School in Elad. There, Sephardi girls are not being separated from their Ashkenazi counterparts. They are being denied enrolment outright. This year, all Sephardi girls in Grade 1 have been rejected.
While these are independent schools, that enjoy a broad pedagogic free hand, they are nevertheless funded by the Ministry of Education, and the waters are being tested to see to which ministry guidelines they may ignore while still receiving funding.
Boys fare no better. I am personally aware of families who felt the need to alter their Sephardi family names to more generic, Israeli-sounding ones in order to have their sons accepted into preschool.
This situation is pervasive, from preschool all the way to the highest yeshiva levels. Virtually all top-notch Ashkenazi yeshivot maintain quotas on how many boys of Sephardi origin they are prepared to accept.
Some 25 years ago, the then-Sephardi chief rabbi, Rabbi Ovadia Yosef, was approached by a group of Sephardi community activists who wanted his permission to go public with the fact that virtually every Israeli yeshiva – including the top-notch, world-renowned yeshivot – had admission quotas limiting the number of Sephardi students they would accept. They argued before the rabbi that these discriminatory quotas were not only contrary to the Torah and Jewish unity, but that they were debilitating and the source of severe anguish to hundreds of otherwise bright, promising boys (and their families) who were being rejected simply because of their Sephardi heritage.
At the time, Rabbi Yosef denied their request on the grounds that it would be too confrontational. While I’m not aware that he has ruled otherwise, nor am I proposing that he would today rule any differently, it is evident that what was once tolerated is now being presented before the courts as being intolerable.
How times have changed and continue to change.