Revealing the Truth About the Emmanuel Affair: It’s About Religiosity, Not Ethnic Segregation


emmanuel2By Rabbi Avi Shafran

The recent Israeli Supreme Court ruling against parents of students in the Jewish town of Emanuel and the ensuing┬ámassive charedi-Orthodox demonstrations on the parents’ behalf present an opportunity either to jump to conclusions or objectively evaluate the facts.Several Sephardic parents – Israelis of North African and Middle Eastern backgrounds – in the town brought a lawsuit aimed at preventing other parents of students who had been studying in the local Beit Yaakov girls’ school from maintaining a new school the latter group had established.

The court ruled that the new school was born of illegal ethnic discrimination and later that the “new school” parents’ subsequent second choice – to send their daughters to a school in another city – also was forbidden to them.

The court fined those parents for each day they refused to comply with its order to return their children to the Emanuel Beit Yaakov, threatened them with prison and then made good on the threat. On June 17 the parents, wearing their Sabbath clothes, were held aloft and given a send-off to the prison by a peaceful crowd of tens of thousands singing and dancing in a demonstration of support for the parents.

What gives here? There are two versions.

First, the one presented by most media: Racial prejudice lay at the root of the parents’ desire for a separate school for their children and their refusal to abide by the court ruling. The large number of supporters who turned out on their behalf reflected a general haredi Ashkenazi disdain for Sephardim.

Version 2: The jailed parents sought only to preserve the religious standards the Emanuel school had maintained for many years. Changing demographics over the years in Emanuel brought an influx of families with less stringent standards of Jewish observance, dress and insularity (including things like the use of the Internet and personal messaging, which are shunned by many haredim for religious reasons) than the original residents of the town.

Some of the longtime residents with school-age children saw a need for two different educational institutions to service Emanuel’s girls. That most of the new families happened to be of Sephardic heritage played no role at all in that decision.

The first version was endorsed by Israel’s Supreme Court, which pronounced that the new school evidenced prejudice and ordered the parents who had founded it to return their children to the Emanuel Beit Yaakov.

Those parents, however, insisted — and continue to insist — that the court finding was wrong and that their choice was a matter of religious conscience. They refused to be coerced to send their children to a school of the court’s choice and readily went to jail fighting for that right. The larger haredi community, wary of the Supreme Court in the best of circumstances and seeing it as having ignored clear facts in this case, rallied to the parents’ side.

Which version reflects the truth?

There is no doubt that discrimination against Sephardim exists in Israeli society, and that it is pernicious and must be fought wherever it appears. The question at issue in Emanuel, though, is whether such discrimination – or, rather, parents’ concerns for the tenor of their children’s educations – motivated the establishment of the new school.

Several simple facts, although oddly absent from most news reports, seem to point in one direction: More than a quarter of the girls who had been enrolled in the new school were Sephardim. And there were Ashkenazi girls who remained in the original Beit Yaakov, too. What is more, not one applicant to the new school was rejected. Any girl willing to abide by the school’s standards was welcomed, regardless of her ethnic background. The “segregation,” it seems, consisted of nothing more than two schools offering two different sets of religious standards.

The Supreme Court emperor’s nakedness may have been most succinctly voiced by one of the parents who went to jail as he was held aloft by the crowd and a reporter’s microphone was put before him.

“Are you a Sephardi?” asked the off-camera voice, its owner having apparently noticed the man’s complexion.

“Yes,” he replied, “A Yemenite.”

Then, with a wry smile at the absurdity of it all, he added, “A Yemenite is being taken in [to prison] for racism. You understand?”

Yet the headlines blared on, using charged phrases like “ethnic prejudice” and “segregation,” and portraying the jailed parents and their supporters as seeking to discriminate against Sephardim, invoking, as did the court, the struggle by American blacks for civil rights in the 1950s and ’60s.

They got it backward. The haredi parents and marchers were championing their rights as parents to educate their children as they wish. They, if anyone, are the Martin Luther Kings here. The court, sad to say, assumed the Bull Connor role.

(Rabbi Avi Shafran is director of public affairs of Agudath Israel of America.)


  1. Lets not forget that out of the fourteen judges in the “supreme” court only ONE is Sefaradi! That in a land to which over 50% are Sefaradi. Talk about ethnic prejudice.

  2. Perhaps you ought to have consulted a dictionary before titling this opinion piece. According to Webster’s dictionary, religiosity is defined as “excessively, obtrusively, or sentimentally religious”.

  3. How come there was never a Sepharadie Prime Minister, Secretary of defense, or any high position in the Israely Government? The Israely media & Government are the biggest hypocrites!

  4. The media are the hypocrites and theres no justice on the part of the judicial establishment either, but just merely for the facts allow me to correct the commenter claiming there was never a sfardi defense minister, for there was already a sfardi defense minister (shaul mofaz, under the sharon goverment) and a sfardi foreign minister and a sefardi finance minister, but its not really the point here, the real point in this entire issue is that we are battling with a supreme court and most of the court system, in israel for that matter that are racists and unanswerable to the public. and can decide to indict a serving prime minister if they see fit. And how do they join the system well they dont get voted in like in most civilised democratic countries rather they are braught in by a friend brings a friend, and every israeli politican is dead scared of this establishment which in essence runs the state and decides whats right and wrong. And so for the most part israel is a lone democracy in the middle east but its far from the standards of democracy we are used to, (compared to iran, syria, egypt, and turkey well yes israel’s democratic but in reality in israel, theres no full freedom of expression, and a person could be imprisoned if they do as much as express an opinion which is contrast to the courts. And so the battle here is beween the courts and freedom of speech and of course freedom to practice ones religion.

  5. To Number 4

    hello say goodbye to your argument

    There were at least three ministers of defense who are sephardim. Amir Peres, Shaul Mofaz, and Yitzchak Mordechai.

  6. I sense that the Sephardi parents who went to jail, Ashkenazed themselves; the father interview who self recognized himself as a Yemenite was dressed in typical Yeshivishe style.
    Many Sephardi still see a need to be
    ‘change” themselves in order to be accepted by the Ashkenazi Torah World.

  7. Mr Woolstone, Lalum himself is “dressed in typical Yeshivishe style” and hes the one fighting for Sefaradi “rights”

    quite silly sir