Each year, as the school year begins, hundreds of cases of sweet little girls – whose only "crime" is being of Sephardi background –are forced to remain home after being rejected by the ultra-Orthodox Beis Yaakov school system.
School principals admit openly that they reject student's because of their ethnic backgrounds. A legal ruling, the first of its kind, issued by the Jerusalem District Court, has now given legal teeth to a phenomenon we have observed for a long time: "There is a suspicion that registration procedures employ ethic criteria in their admission standards."
The quota system by which schools limit Sephardi registration to just 30 percent of the total student population is both well known and deeply rooted. When a student is accepted to a Beis Yaakov school, the principal is expected to mark down whether the student comes from an Ashkenazi or Sephardi family.
These principals – who come from the haredi (ultra-Orthodox) stream associated with Rabbi Yosef Shalom Eliashiv, and for whom the principles of democracy are not exactly an area of expertise – see nothing wrong with this openly racist practice. After all, the Beis Yaakov system was originally established to serve the needs of Ashkenazi girls.
And where is the ministry of education in all this? The ministry has known for years about this racist practice, but has chosen to do nothing. Why do institutions that employ openly racist admission criteria receive public funding, a practice that is against the law? Where have all the education ministers been? Why have they agreed to sacrifice these girls on the altar of the "status quo"?
The mystery behind this phenomenon is better than any spy novel you've ever read.
A true story: In the year 2000, when I served as a Jerusalem city councilor as a member of a totally secular party, there was a steady flow of haredim into my office, all with the same story: A six-year-old daughter, all set to begin first grade, had been refused admittance by a school principle, because the quota was already full. Even girls who were admitted under the quota were separated into separate classes for Sephardic girls.
In my innocence I thought maybe they'd come to the wrong office, that they were really looking for the Shas Party representatives down the hall. "Their deputy mayors have much more power than I do in opposition," I told them.
They looked around to make sure no one was listening, and then told me, "We've already been to them. They told us their hands were tied, and that we should come to you for help."
If my rivals in Shas are sending their voters to me, I thought to myself, there must really be some hope for haredi-secular co-existence.
Shas and the 10 commandments
Before one council meeting, I told then-Mayor Ehud Olmert about the scope of the problem, and asked him to table a motion by which the City of Jerusalem would not fund any institution that employed racist admission criteria.
To my horror, when Olmert tabled the resolution, all the Shas council members left the room – and the proposal was rejected. Later, I asked one of their rabbis why they didn't vote for my proposal, to put an end once-and-for-all to this discrimination? We are talking about Sephardi girls, after all.
"Oh, Roni," he told me, "when will you learn what politics is all about? I would have voted against the Ten Commandments if you'd tabled them for a vote. You're not one of us. You worry about your kids, and leave us to worry about ours."
That was years ago, but the phenomenon is alive and well. The solution lies in our inability – haredim and secular Israelis – to overcome our differences and to fight for the things we have in common.
We must all reject racism against ultra-orthodox Sephardi girls. This racism does not stem, God forbid, from ill-intent; it is merely a surviving remnant from our terrible exile that forced us to seclude ourselves in order to preserve our faith.
Here, in our new home, only openness between secular types and the ultra-Orthodox, only by rising above politics, will we be able to move together towards the light of progress. Call it the birth pangs of the messiah.
Roni Aloni-Sadovnik is a former deputy mayor of Jerusalem for the advancement of the status of children