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B'siyata d'shmaya - With the help of Heaven


Ashkenazi Against Sephardi Racism Lives

By Shelomo Alfassa

(June 18, 2010) Some 100,000 Hasidic haredi (ultra-Orthodox) Ashkenazi Jews staged a massive rally to show support to fellow parents within their communities that were sent to prison to serve two-week sentences. The parents were found to be in contempt of court for failing to send their children to school alongside Sephardi children.

The haredim were found guilty by the Israeli High Court of Justice of racism. Evidence of their crime can easily be seen by the fact that schools were constructed with separate entrances and separate classrooms for Ashkenazi and Sephardi Jews. The Ashkenazi parents say they need to keep the classrooms segregated because the families of the Sephardi girls "aren't religious enough." The arguments and actions of the haredi communities are similar to those which took place in the early and mid 20th century United States under the Jim Crow laws which separated blacks and whites.

Tens of thousands of Hasidic haredi Ashkenazi Jews protest charge of racism (Photo: AFP)

After the recent decision by the Israeli court to put a halt to the discrimination, the haredi Ashkenazi students' parents decided to boycott the court order by keeping their children home. Education Ministry inspectors soon discovered that physical separators had been removed, but that the Sephardic girls were the only ones in class.

Hassidic haredi Jews initially arrived in Palestine from Europe and Russia in the late 19th century. Ever since their arrival, they have been criticized by their fellow Jews for always being on the margin and not working together toward intra-religious harmony. The Holy Land was represented by one rabbi for hundreds of years, which was always a Sephardi rabbi. The last single-representative was Chief Rabbi Jacob Meir (1856-1939), a Spanish Sephardi rabbi. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook (1865-1935) was brought in from Europe to be the Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi, thus the co-chief rabbi of British Mandate Palestine. Upon taking office, Rabbi Kook asked the Hasidic haredi Ashkenazim to work together with him, after all, he too was a Hasidic Ashkenazi Jew!--but they outright rejected his notion of being part of a central chief rabbinate nor working in any fashion with the secular Zionist leadership. The haredim of yesteryear marginalized themselves; they blindly followed their leaders known as "rebbes," as they continue to do today. Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, expressed his deep anger about this when he wrote a scathing commentary of the haredim:

The enslavement of the[ir] intelligence and its stupefaction result from certain influences, and the more 'holy' the influences, the greater the damage done, amounting to the corruption of prophecy in God's name, actions of wickedness and impurity, idol worship and abomination. Thus when the attempt to stupefy the intelligence is presented in the name of faith, of fear of Heaven, or diligence in Torah and fulfilling of mitzvot, it becomes a terrible lie and a filthy impurity. Then the holy ones of the Most High, God's pure servants, must go forth to redeem the world and Israel, the Torah, and all that is holy to the Lord from these destroyers.(1)

The contemporary battle in Israel stems from the fact haredi Ashkenazi Jews demand that the Sephardi children (in this case we are speaking of children of Jews from Muslim countries) pray in the Ashkenazi manner both at home and at school. Further, the haredim have demanded the Sephardi children dress like they do-in fashion which originated from Central and Eastern Europe, that of the black clergical uniform consisting of a long coat and black hat.

But it gets even worse than that. The haredim in Israel have established separation fences in the school's courtyards, and setup different recess times for Ashkenazi and Sephardi students to keep them apart. The Ashkenazi school placed signs on the walls indicating physical separation. All of this discrimination and racism smacks of the 1970's when it was not uncommon for Sephardi Jews to be called 'niggers.'

The parents of the haredim insist that they were acting out of religious conviction and rejected charges of racism. However, constructing a wall to separate children whose grandparents come from Morocco, Egypt or Iraq versus whose grandparents come from Poland, Ukraine or Russia, needs no explanation. The opinions and outlook of the Hasidic haredim in Israel are no different today than they were was in the past. We can now see why Rabbi Kook, the first Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi, issued stern criticism of them in the early 20th century. He said the haredim were:

Fur-cloaked deceivers, weak of spirit and small of mind, whose own intellectual light has been obstructed, their feelings dulled, and their imagination coarsened, who purposefully and thoroughly trample down the reality before them, their own faith enrooted in mere fables of faith... And thus souls stumble and fall, and human beings live the lives of beasts, degradation without knowledge or understanding, without human honor, that most basic element in recognizing the honour of Heaven that fills the world, that gives life to all, and animates spirit and soul.

Xenophobia relates to their bitter and unjust hatred of the Sephardim. This revulsion by this group of haredi Ashkenazim against Jews that were displaced from Muslim countries goes along with their desire to secure a presumed Ashkenazi purity of religion. Yet, this is ironic, as it's the Sephardi Jews that made up the indigenous Jewish population in the Holy Land. And while these Hassidic haredim follow a version of the Jewish religion that was founded in 18th century Ukraine by Rabbi Israel ben Eliezer, under halakha (binding Jewish religious law) it is the customs and traditions of the Sephardi Jews which are the customs of the Land of Israel and legally should be the dominant way of life in Israel.

The racism and segregation being experienced upon Sephardi children in Israel today is shameful, but it is nothing new. This not a simple issue of minhag (tradition) or different mesorah (tradition), this is about the blatant hatred of the Sephardi Jews by the Hasidic haredi Ashkenazim, a very well known situation that exists in parts of Israel today. Jews should be moving forward not backward. The fear, ignorance and emotional response being elicited by the Hasidic haredi Ashkenazim is a disgrace to all Jews on the highest level. It's a true crying shame.


Related article: Why do Sephardic Children go to Ashkenazi Schools in Israel?


1) Source of statement by Kook: Rav Kook Manuscript, Collection D, 18b. Published in Orot ha-Emunah, pp.67-68. And in Ish-Shalom.
Rav Avraham Itzhak HaCohen Kook: Between Rationalism and Mysticism. Albany: State Univ. of New York Press: 1993. p.17



© Shelomo Alfassá