We’re not racist, but…

Here’s another sad story of religious zealotry harming lives. (Click through for an incredible photograph.)

JERUSALEM (AP) — Tens of thousands of black-clad ultra-Orthodox Jews staged mass demonstrations on Thursday to protest a Supreme Court ruling forcing the integration of a religious girls’ school.

Protesters snarled traffic in Jerusalem and another large religious enclave, crowded onto balconies in city squares, and waved posters decrying the court’s decision and proclaiming the supremacy of religious law.

So, what was it that religious law told them was so important?

Parents of European, or Ashkenazi, descent at a girls’ school in the West Bank settlement of Emanuel don’t want their daughters to study with schoolgirls of Mideast and North African descent, known as Sephardim.

The Ashkenazi parents insist they aren’t racist, but want to keep the classrooms segregated, as they have been for years, arguing that the families of the Sephardi girls aren’t religious enough.

Now, I don’t know exactly what the situation in this particular school is like. There are slight, nuanced differences between the religious practices of Orthodox Ashkenazim and Sephardim, and of course there are cultural differences. If the school is really based on ultra-Orthodox Judaism, they may feel they have some grounds to complain about a group that believes rice is kosher for Passover and uses slightly different wording for a few prayers. That doesn’t seem to be the situation, though — the dispute seems to be framed as Ashkenazi vs. Sephardi, indicating that other Ashkenazim who are not as orthodox in their observance would be fine, and Sephardim are unacceptable.

Yep, it sounds pretty much like old-fashioned racism (despite their insistence otherwise), justified using the language of religion. Can’t we agree yet that “separate but equal” really isn’t?

‘Everyone wants to send their children to Ashkenazi schools,” said another demonstrator, Zion Harounian, 62, a Sephardic father of nine. ”The quality of the Ashkenazi schools is much higher. They are stronger politically, so they get more money.”

Unsurprisingly, getting state money and law all tangled up with religious organizations has caused some problems. The religious right, especially in the US, argues against church-state separation because they want to exert religious influence on the government and they want the government to promote their version of religion. But it’s worth remembering that this wall of separation can actually help religion too. If the Israeli government wasn’t favoring Ashkenazi schools in funding decisions, there’d be a more equitable distribution of resources and everybody would get to decide for themselves what their religion is. Once you take state funds, you accept the fact that they’re able to attach strings. Don’t want the strings? Don’t take the funds.

I’ll leave you with the most telling quotation from the article, which I think does a great job of highlighting the essential problem — with religious devotion, with racism, with all practices that teach hatred of the Other.

Esther Bark, 50, who has seven daughters, said the issue is keeping the girls away from the temptations of the modern world. ”To suddenly put them in an open-minded place is not good for them,” she said.

Indeed! Anything but an open-minded place!

Update: Time Magazine has coverage of this with a bit more detail, identifying this as a conflict between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim (rather than Sephardim). I thought that was important for technical accuracy, but I don’t think it changes the real take-away point.

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  1. What a coincidence! I was posted about how upset I was about this article on my blog today, too, and naturally picked the same telling quote. Reminds me a bit of the UK case where, since the gov’t funded religious schools, they had to rule on what made someone Jewish.

    Erasing church/state separation ends badly for everyone. My college once had a debate on a similar issue. Some of the speeches from the debate are up here, and mine is here.

  2. Aristarchus

     /  June 18, 2010 at 1:43 pm

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/12/17/world/europe/17britain.html – similar thing happened in the UK.

    If you take state money, you get the state deciding what it means to be a member of your religion. This kind of thing is why the faith-based initiative legislation got defeated by an alliance of the left and the far right. They know they want to keep their churches free of government control. Church-state separation really shouldn’t be seen as anti-religion.

    I suspect actually that the separation of church and state in the US is part of the reason that the US is more religious than Europe. If you’re an atheist making the argument in Italy, it’s obvious who the other side of the argument is – the Catholic Church. If you out-argue them, or if they do something that makes them look bad (which is, you know, something they tend to do from time to time…) then you’re in good shape. In the US, there’s just an endless stream of new flavors of religion and no real structure that can be discredited.

    I also think this is the root of a lot of ambivalence by non-orthodox American Jews towards Israel. If you’re a Jew in the US, your freedoms live and die by the strength of the Establishment Clause. It’s a good rule, and you’re very clear on why. It’s hard to support (at least whole-heartedly) a state that isn’t just a safe haven for Jews, but is also actively involved in the religion itself.

  3. Ooh, sorry dudes, Leah’s comment got caught in the spam filter at first. :-/

    What a mess. Is there anywhere else on earth that’s figured out the American way of thinking about freedom of religion? I don’t mean to be an arrogant Yankee here but … I really do think we do this one better.

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