Sunday, August 15, 2010

Religious Freedom, or Bigotry? The Segregation of the Jews

I've written before about the misnomer that is 'religious freedom.' It's a common cry from evangelical Christians in America, who use it to defend a multitude of sins that would have our founding fathers spinning in their graves.

But it's worth remembering that so-called 'religious freedom' is an excuse used by many faiths - like those defending their right to build a needlessly provocative mosque just steps from Ground Zero in New York.

But perhaps the most flagrant display of bigotry disguised as 'religious freedom' comes from Israel, where ultra-orthodox Jews are demanding that a girl's school in the West Bank settlement of Emanuel be segregated - with the school only admitting Jews of Ashkenazi descent. Jewish girls of Sephardic descent are to be excluded because, in the words of one Ashkenazi parent, "the families of the Sephardi girls aren't religious enough."

To outsiders, this might seem a little confusing - so I'll explain:

Judaism exists as a sort of contradiction - it is both a race and a faith. Most Jews come from one of two ethnic groupings - Ashkenazi, who originated from Russia, the Slavic nations and Europe (and tend to have reddish hair and even blue eyes) and Sephardi, who originated from Jesus' homeland in the middle east and have dark hair, olive skin and a genetic layout pretty much identical to middle eastern Arabs.

Demographically, Ashkenazi Jews tend to enjoy a certain amount of economic and social privilege in Isreal, which reflects on the quality of their schooling. "Everyone wants to send their children to Ashkenazi schools,"explained Sephardic parent Zion Harounian, who has nine children - many of whom attend the contested school. "The quality of the Ashkenazi schools is much higher. They are stronger politically, so they get more money."

So just like the more highly regarded school zones in America, parents are anxious to give their kids the best start in life by letting them attend the 'best' (in this case, read Ashkenazi) schools.

Which is where the outrage begins.

43 parents of Ashkenazi students refused to allow their children to attend classes while girls of both Askenazi and Sephardic descent were allowed to study together. They demanded that the school be completely segregated - and took the case to the Supreme Court to get their 'religious freedom' exercised.

Unsurprisingly, Israel's highest court did not rule in their favor - demanding that the integration of Ashkenazi and Sephardic students go ahead as planned. The result? A mass demonstration in which 100,000 supporters of the Ashkenazi segregation gathered in the streets of Jerusalem - some even waving placards claiming "The Supreme Court is fascist!"

It's deeply troubling for a number of reasons - not least of which because of the power the ultra-Orthodox Jews possess in an apparently modern democracy like Israel.

(To gather 100,000 protesters to defend a school segregation is astonishing. Compare it to the recent Tea Party protests in the USA - in which a movement that supposedly encompasses 30% of Americans struggles to gather more than a few thousand protesters.)

But more so, it's troubling because of the implication of what the Ashkenazi parents are trying to accomplish - nothing short of racial segregation. It's telling that their attempts to divide the school are not done on religious grounds - separating students based on which sect of Judaism they follow - but purely on ethnic grounds.

The red/blond haired Ashkenazi desire to be separate from the olive-skinned, black haired Sephardic Jews in a manner alarmingly similar to the way Germans in the thirties sought to segregate (and then eliminate) the Jews who failed to match their 'Aryan ideals.'

There's also something ironic about the fact that 'nazi' are the last letters of the group demanding segregation.

Such ethnic groupings have no place in Israel. After all, the nation is largely founded by survivors - either of the Nazi regime in the 1930s and 1940s, or the single-minded attrition of neighboring Arab countries during the decades that followed. They shouldn't tolerate that same hatred and racism within their own borders.

I have many Israeli friends and one of the things they've always impressed upon me is the fact that Israel is meant to encompass, rather than segregate. Jews from all over the world are welcome in Israel - whether they were born Jewish, or converted en route.

And that's the final tipping point - the fact that Judaism isn't - and should never be - about ethnicity. It's certainly true that most of my Jewish-American friends describe themselves as 'Jewish' in the same way friends call themselves 'Italian' or 'Polish' or 'African American.' However, Judaism is ultimately a religion and a faith - and people of any background can be called to it and convert. A corn-fed Nebraskan girl can be just as Jewish as a Brighton Beach Orthodox Jew if she embraces that faith.

So the decision of these Israeli parents to try and segregate their school smacks of nothing but bigotry, hypocrisy and racism - which is especially heinous in a nation founded by those who'd survived the murderous result of those three cardinal sins when they were practiced in the 1930s.

The Ashkenazi parents are wailing that their 'religious freedom' is being infringed by forcing their children to study with kids of another ethnicity - but given that ultimately both groups of children are of the same religion, that argument falls resolutely and irredeemably flat.

It's just yet another example of what we encounter every single day in America - religious bigots defending their hypocrisy behind the misguided misnomer of 'religious freedom' - when in truth, freedom and religion have very little to do with it.


Susanne said...

Interesting post! I talked to my Syrian friend about it for a bit this morning and he said the Sephardic Jews - ironically enough - tend to be more racist to Arabs than the other. I guess most people just have some form of racism at their core.

I've always found the Jewish being a religion and/or ethnicity thing weird. As you said a Nebraskan can convert to Judaism and become "a Jew," but at the same time an ethnic Jew can convert to Islam or Christianity and still be a Jew ... at least to SOME. I've heard some Jews don't count you as a Jew if you leave Judaism. Which is really funny to me since many Israelis are practically atheists so are they no longer Jews?

If Jewishness is an ethnicity for some yet not their religion, it doesn't mean they are no longer Jewish. They just aren't of the Jewish faith. Kind of crazy.

Can you think of other groups that are both an ethnicity and religion?

Anyway, thanks for the information. I found it interesting!

Samer said...

Maybe I am wrong but to me it seemed that you are concerned only about the intolerance among Israeli Jews without mentioning the intolerance and discrimination that have been practiced against both Israeli Arabs and Palestinians in occupied territory for more than 60 years.

It seemed troubling to me when I read this,"they've always impressed upon me is the fact that Israel is meant to encompass, rather than segregate. Jews from all over the world are welcome in Israel - whether they were born Jewish, or converted en route."

How would you feel of a Muslim country that is meant to encompass only Muslims, born or convert? Would you be fine with America being a country only for Christians? Why is Israel the only country that is allowed to be a religion-exclusive country?