Israeli Ultra-Orthodox Jews Protest School Ruling

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Huge rallies were held in Israel on Thursday by ultra-Orthodox Jews protesting a decision by Israel's highest court to stop segregation in a state-run girls' school in the West Bank settlement of Emanuel. The issue has brought to attention long-standing divisions in Israel's ultraorthodox community — including discrimination between religious groups.

MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Ultra-Orthodox Jews staged a large rally today in Israel. They were protesting a decision by Israel's high court to stop religious segregation in a girls' school in the West Bank settlement of Emanuel.

The issue has brought attention to longstanding divisions in Israel's ultra-Orthodox community, including discrimination between religious groups. Sheera Frenkel reports from Jerusalem.

SHEERA FRENKEL: Tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox gathered in the streets of one of Jerusalem's largest avenues today. The somber scene of black hats and traditional, heavy suits turned suddenly celebratory as the crowd parted to reveal several dozen men who were carried through the crowd on wooden chairs.

These are the parents who have refused to send their children to a state-run school, where they will study in classrooms that are mixed between Jews from different backgrounds - namely Ashkenazi, or Jews of European descent, and Sephardi, Jews who mostly identify their descent as Spanish or Middle Eastern.

The ultra-Orthodox here call these parents heroes of the religious community, and defend their right to segregate schools between Jews of different religious backgrounds.

Rachel Menashe, a 50-year-old mother of four, says she came to the rally because she identifies with the parents.

Ms. MENASHE: People try to raise their children in different ways and educate them in the way that they believe, and then there are other, different types of people that are educating their children differently. So they don't feel that they should be learning in the same school. I think it's a different standard of Sephardic people over there. And I don't think I'd want my children in their company, either.

FRENKEL: Menashe says that though the distinctions between Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews have become muddled among more secular Jews, the ultra-Orthodox still see those distinctions and would prefer to educate their children separately.

Israel's highest court has ruled that the issue comes down to laws regarding the state-run school system. The court sentenced 41 of the Emanuel school parents to two weeks in prison for contempt of court, for refusing to send their daughters to the integrated school.

Imanuel Mendolweitz says his sister is the parent of three girls at the Emanuel school. He feels the court has ruled unfairly toward the ultra-Orthodox.

Mr. IMANUEL MENDOLWEITZ: (Through translator) This is a group of parents that want to teach in a certain way. It is simple. My sister wants to teach the way our ancestors did, the way her parents did and her grandparents.

FRENKEL: But many in Israel feel that the parents in Emanuel are still practicing a form of racism.

On a street corner not far from the rally, 28-year-old Ari Holtzburg held a small counter-protest. He identifies as religious, but disagrees with the ultra-Orthodox demonstrators.

Mr. ARI HOLTZBURG: I think someone who wants to study should be accepted regardless of his family conditions or the color of his skin. Think about the impression about this kid is going to grow up with, and I think it's going to make him a big racist.

FRENKEL: As Holtzburg spoke, a woman from the rally walked up and began to question him. They argued heatedly in Hebrew. The woman said he doesn't want to understand her Judaism. He responded by asking her whether she would allow her Ashkenazi daughter to marry a Sephardi boy. Absolutely not, she said. It's not even part of the issue.

For NPR News, I'm Sheera Frenkel in Jerusalem.

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