Parents jailed over school race row

Parents of Ashkenazi girls in the Emanuel school say psalms during the Supreme Court hearing this week

Parents of Ashkenazi girls in the Emanuel school say psalms during the Supreme Court hearing this week

Seventy four strictly Orthodox couples have decided to go to prison for two weeks rather than disobey their rabbis and send their daughters to school with Sephardim.

The Supreme Court's decision to jail the parents was the culmination of 18 months of proceedings. Charedi social activists petitioned the court last February after the Beit Yaakov School in the town of Emanuel was effectively divided between a predominantly Ashkenazi "Chasidic stream" and a mainly Sephardi "general stream".

The court ruled that the segregation was based on the girls' origins and therefore discriminatory, and ordered that the partition walls be taken down.

It took another petition and five more months until the school complied. However, the Ashkenazi parents, acting upon their rabbis' orders, decided to send their daughters to Charedi schools in other towns instead.

The court ruled that the parents were not allowed to do so and fined them NIS 400 for every day they continued to keep their daughters away from the school. On Tuesday, the court ruled they were in contempt and that any parent who would not commit to returning their daughters to Beit Yaakov by Thursday would be imprisoned.

Following the ruling, the parents began crying "Shema Yisrael" and singing songs extolling God's supremacy over human beings. Mordechai Green, an attorney representing the parents, said that they had the right to decide to which school to send their children.

The parents have insisted that they are not discriminatory.

"We are not racists," said their spokesman, Shmuel Weinberg. "We simply have our own very strict educational and religious standards and we want our daughters to study with other girls whose families live by those standards. There are Sephardi girls in the classes."

Court president Edmond Levi said that "no court ruling needs the authorisation of anyone, not even of a rabbi".

Dr Aviad Hacohen, who represented the petitioners, said that "it is very regrettable that the Supreme Court has to take such a drastic step in order to enforce its rulings, which were meant to prevent despicable discrimination which runs contrary to the Jewish and democratic character of the state."

Following the court's ruling, various politicians and rabbis tried to reach a compromise, but the parents and their rabbis were adamant they were not going to obey the court and that they would not even wait to be arrested but would go themselves to the police station to be taken off to prison.

The man of the moment was the Slonim Rebbe, Rabbi Shmuel Berzovsky. Most of the parents belong to his community and he was the main person urging them to disobey the court.

Rabbi Berzovsky announced that he would accompany his followers, along with thousands of other strictly Orthodox men, all wearing their Shabbat finest, in what is being billed as a major showdown between the Charedi leadership and the state law establishment.

But the government's ministers have mainly stayed silent, anxious not to anger the Charedi parties in the coalition. Education Minister Gidon Sa'ar remained low-key, telling the Knesset that "everyone has to obey court rulings, even if they don't agree with them" but adding, "I still hope we can solve this. Especially since the school year is over in two weeks, I don't see why they cannot carry out the court's ruling."

Most members of the Orthodox Sephardi party, Shas, remained silent.

The Emanuel case was the second clash this week between the Charedi community and the Supreme Court. On Monday it ruled that married students at yeshivahs should no longer receive income support payments from the state, since university students in similar financial situations are not entitled to these payments.

    Last updated: 4:02pm, June 17 2010