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Case Study—Obtrusive Intervention-Israeli Supreme Court
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By: Rabbi Fishel Jacobs Email Article
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It’s about an alleged segregation policy. Or is it about quality in the school?

Regardless—hundreds of thousands of orthodox Jewish protestors have been rioting the streets of Jerusalem. Last week, eighty of them, law-abiding parents—mothers and fathers—were on their way into prison. Ordered by the Supreme Court of Israel.

It began in the summer of 2007. Rabbi Ya’akov Yosef, son of a former head rabbi of Israel, petitioned the Israeli courts. He claimed that the Beit Yakov, all female parochial school, in the municipality of Emanuel had a racist based policy. Students of Ashkenazie lineage (Russia, Germany, Romania, Poland) were placed in one classroom, those of a Sefardic (Morraco, Libya, Yemen, Egypt) background in another.

The school’s defense claimed: No. The issue is not based on racism; rather on quality. What is being labeled the "Sefardi class" is made up of students who simply do not live up to the standards of the higher group.

The Supreme Court heard the sides, debated the issue. Last week, judgement was delivered. The school was ordered to decease from its perceived racist policy.

The religious populace, a strong electoral force to be reckoned with, viewed this as an unacceptable intervention in the inner workings of its insular world, a sentiment as ancient for these religious Jews in a secular Israel as the country itself. It’s a social issue which pops up every few years in one form or another.

As too many Middle Eastern scraps, this one didn’t die down—it blew up. Last week hundreds of thousands, in a country of merely six million, hit the streets.

The Supreme Court’s role, in most countries, is to decide issues of gravity to society at large. Disagreements between individuals get decided lower down in the judicial ladder. This is verily the case in our Talmudic tradition, where monetary arguments are decided in a court, beit din, of three judges. Issues of wider concern are decided between twenty-three judges. Declaration of war, other issues of national consequence, are decided by the Sanhedrin, comprised of seventy-one judges. In modern Israel, messages such as racism, particularly in a school environment, are surely in the realm of the Supreme Court.

The decision got issued. The contention of racism assumed front row, the quality-control claim took back seat. The school complied.

But, last week saw fifty, of eighty (thirty, mainly mothers, didn’t appear to begin their punishment) defiant parents enter prison. All religious Jewish newspapers worldwide reported unanimous rabbinic support for these parents’ principle-based self-sacrifice.

There is some semblance of logic, until here—at least within the parameter of a Middle Eastern context—a geographical location not known for excessive amounts of sanity.

Though, one might be able to rationalize the Supreme Court rescinding the school’s license in lieu of compliance with its directives. And, one might understand an order to cease funding for this institution.

But, this does not make sense: Sending decent caring fathers and mothers to prison for refusing to send their children to this—or any—school not of their choice?!

The frustration of a Supreme Court judge watching his decisions challenged is understandable. One could feel compassion for a secular court judge serving a large portion of her own society, which doesn’t even recognize the entire judicial system that judge represents. Last, one could easily sympathize a judge’s anguish viewing his name plastered in deragatory fashion in newspaper headlines throughout the entire religious world. Clearly, there needs to be more respect from all sides.

But—democracy and freedom of expression demand high prices.

The question which must be answered is this: What right has the Court to send these people to prison?

The school conformed policy. From then on, is it not the parents’ prerogative to choose to use this school’s services—or not?!

Where does the Court draw standing to ship eighty law-abiding and caring parents to prison?!

Israel conducts itself according to order, with freedom of speech. It is, verily, an island of western democracy in a Middle East still full of tyrants and mass murderers in broad daylight.

However, those who aspire to high levels of conduct are held accountable to higher standards. Law should be a tool to permit quality of life, and freedom of personal choice. But, it must always be watched with caution, and guarded against over empowerment against the very people it is meant to serve.

Rabbi Fishel Jacobs, a Major in the Israeli Prison Service, wrote 7 non-fiction books, on law, but include popular writing. His site:

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