The Emmanuel school affair has become increasingly troubling. Now the sides have become so deeply entrenched in their views that they are ignoring reality. Unfortunately racism and unfair prejudices and even hatred is a pathology that effects all segments of human society and in order for it to be eradicated it needs to be contently fought against.
Now, whether or not the case in Emmanuel involved racism is no longer relevant, it involves bygones. What is pertinent here is the denial that is going on. Having lived is Israel I have clearly witnesses a degree of racism and bigotry all around Israeli society. Within many of the secular elements of Israeli society there is a hatred for haredim that should not be tolerated. For some reason even people who consider themselves enlightened often feel that it is perfectly permissible to hold unreasonable prejudices towards religious people whilst a similar bigotry towards others would be considered unacceptable. This double standard must be uprooted.
But the haredi community is often just as guilty albeit in a different way. As one who grew up in that community I can attest that racism exists within it. This is not to say that all haredi Jews are racists, they certainly are not. However, there is an unacceptable level of tolerance for racism within our community. I have often had young Yeshiva students in my home and they will attempt to make a racially charged joke. When I interject and say that I will not tolerate such derogatory jokes about another community (Jewish or Gentile) in my home they always seem surprised. It is like they have never been called out on it before.
But it goes deeper than this. Last week I received an email from an old friend who lives in Israel. He is an Ashkenazi man who became religious about twenty years ago and moved to Israel where he married to a Yeminite woman and started a business and a family. He writes about a relative of his wife who is a very religious Torah scholar but was denied an apartment in a certain haredi town only because he was a Yeminite. He talks about a family friend whose daughter was not accepted to a religious seminar because she was Sephardic. When the head of the school learned that this friend worked in the Education Ministry with potential access to funds for school buildings, the acceptance letter was magically forthcoming. These are unfortunately not untypical stories.
In addition, in many haredi communities in Israel it is not acceptable for an Ashkenazi girl to marry a Sephardic boy. This at times goes the other way as well: some Sephardic families won’t tolerate the suggestion of their child marrying into an Ashkenazi family. All of this prejudice is terribly disturbing especially taking into consideration the fact that the haredi community studies and reveres Torah scholars of both Ashkenazi and Sephardic backgrounds. In fact Maimonides who was Sephardic is considered the greatest Jewish scholar of all time and is venerated immensely by the Torah studying Ashkenazi community. Yet the Sinat Chinam, the irrational prejudices exist.
Everything happens for a reason and when something like the Emmanuel saga occurs it is time for introspection. This event should be used as an opportunity to talk about and combat the unfounded hatred that exist within the general Jewish community, whether it is secular toward haredi or Ashkenazi towards Sephardic or any other combination.
In a letter to his supporters the Admor of Slonim characterized his imprisoned followers’ battle with the Israeli High Court as an epic, pre-messianic, battle between good and evil. I humbly submit that the evil is not the secular courts but rather it is the ridiculous racism and prejudice that exists within the Jewish people. The good is Ahavat Yisroel—a love of a fellow Jew that transcends rationality. According to the Talmud (Yoma 9b) the ancient Temple was destroyed because of irrational hatred amongst Jews and will only be rebuilt when we learn to practice its opposite—irrational love for our fellow.
When we talk about the messianic age we need to simultaneously discuss ways of overcoming the scourge of racism and prejudice that exists amongst us and it is the rabbis and spiritual leaders amongst us who have the immense responsibility of leading the way rather than God forbid fanning its flames.
Rabbi Levi Brackman is author of Jewish Wisdom for Business Success: Lesson from the Torah and Other Ancient Texts