Jeffay is wrong.
Separating Ashkenazi and Sephardi schoolchildren may seem bigoted but it has meritNathan Jeffay • London Jewish Chronicle
It was the other West Bank separation barrier. In 2007, the strictly Orthodox Beis Yaakov School in the settlement of Emanuel on the West Bank started teaching Ashkenazi and Sephardi pupils separately - with a plaster wall between them. Last year, the High Court decried the "discriminatory aims of those who initiated the separation" and ordered its end.
The wall came down, but the separation persists. Ashkenazi pupils now study in a new school, established in contravention of education ministry rules. In recent weeks, the ministry ordered the new, pirate school to close and all of its pupils to study together. Attempts to mediate a solution between the ministry and proponents of segregation seem to have foundered.
The hopes and expectations of Charedi parents for their children's education are very different to those of a secular or modern-Orthodox parent. The most important thing in strictly Orthodox circles is that their children will learn to pray and read the Bible and other religious texts - and do so in their own communities' traditional Hebrew pronunciation.
One of the key rules of the Ashkenazi stream in Emanuel was that prayers and studies "are conducted in the holy tongue" (ie Ashkenazi pronunciation). Contrary to some press reports, Sephardi pupils who wanted to join the Ashkenazi stream could do so if they abided by this and if "parents will ensure that, even at home, the students will become accustomed to praying as they do at school".
Having grown up in an Ashkenazi family in Manchester and attended a modern Orthodox school that had decided - I think wisely - to use the modern Hebrew accent, I am rather bemused with this Israeli concern with traditional pronunciation.
And I am certainly uncomfortable with the idea of segregation between Ashkenazi and Sephardi children. This is the opposite of the direction I would like to see Israel going, namely towards more integration.
But not all Israelis feel the way I do and Israel sees itself not only as a democracy but as a multicultural democracy - a country in which not everyone shares the same cultural values.
Happily, the days are long gone when Israel's ruling secular-Ashkenazi elite imposed its ways on everybody else, stripping Sephardi and Oriental immigrants of their traditions. Today, almost every public figure makes a point of visiting the Moroccan community during Mimouna, its spring festival. And, in November for the first time, there was an official state reception to mark the Sigd festival of Ethiopian Jews, a newly declared national holiday.
Many in the education ministry, the law and the media regard the Charedim who are pushing for segregation in schools as, at best, dinosaurs or, at worst, racists. But these strictly Orthodox rabbis and others quite reasonably argue that, if their distinctive Hebrew pronunciations are compromised, a valuable part of their heritage is in danger of being lost. Just because many of us in Israel are happy with our hybrid pronunciation called Modern Hebrew, that does not give us the right to impose it on others.
Politicians cannot commend Mimouna and Sigd and praise the way the Moroccan and Ethiopian communities cherish and retain their ethnic traditions while simultaneously condemning parents who want their children to pronounce the holy tongue as their families have for generations. Furthermore, many survivor families cherish their children reading the Bible in the accent used by their ancestors who died in the Holocaust as an important link with a lost generation.
Israel should pick its battles with the strictly Orthodox minority more carefully. Such is the strength of feeling that one Chasidic rebbe has compared the Emanuel parents' determination to maintain segregation to Russian Jews who went to prison "over their children's education". This is a battle that could, if unchecked, escalate into a major secular-religious conflict.
While Emanuel's plaster wall was certainly distasteful, it would not have been built had the parents been allowed to establish separate schools. Israel should acknowledge that multiculturalism involves more than museums or theatre productions and that it applies to Ashkenazi Charedim as much as it does to the rest of the population.
Nathan Jeffay is a journalist based in Israel.
Hasidim demanded – yes, demanded – that Sefardic girls follow a whole host of restrictions that exceed and may actually break normative halakha, from not watching TV to their demand that Sefardic girls not associate with members of their own family who are not haredi.
And Jeffay ignores similar anti-Sefardic discrimination in other haredi schools – discrimination at least some haredi leaders have condemned.
None of these other cases centers around disputes over Hebrew pronunciation.
And Jeffay's whole spin about pronunciation is foolish. The Ashkenazic pronunciation hasidim wish to preserve is really Eastern European pronunciation with heavy Slavic influences. It is not the traditional Ashkenazic pronunciation, just as Polish hasidic Yiddish is not classical Yiddish; instead, it is a greatly reduced creole of various Slavic languages and bits of classical Yiddish. It - and the pronunciation that comes with it – has no provenance. It is barely more than 500 years old, far newer than the Sefardic pronunciation hasidim revile.
Past the copious factual errors in Jeffay's piece is the moral issue. The state pays for 80% or more of the education in these 'private' haredi schools. Because of that, the state and its citizens have the right to mandate certain things, for example, like basic secular education be taught.
But the state also has the right – and most would argue the responsibility – to ban discrimination, even in schools it does not fund.
The school Jeffy writes about forbade Ashkenazi girls from playing – playing! – with Sefardic girls during recess. It would not let the girls eat lunch together. And it would not let the girls socialize outside of school.
To Jeffay this is a simple matter of Hebrew pronunciation. To me – and, I'm confident – to the vast majority of Jews here and in Israel, this is a matter of bigotry.
Jeffay is the Forward's Israel correspondent. The Forward can do much better than him.