Sunday, June 27, 2010

Secular Israeli court attacks freedom of religion in the name of anti-discrimination

Persecutes strictly Orthodox Jews of European origin over separate religious schooling for their children

What could the High Court have been hoping to achieve by ordering 43 parents from Emmanuel jailed for contempt of court for sending their children to a hassidic school in Bnei Brak, after it had banned a separate hassidic track within the Beit Ya’acov school in Emmanuel?

All the court succeeded in doing was unifying the diverse haredi community by striking directly at the very heart of haredi life – the right of parents to transmit the Torah to the children, according to their convictions. Even a neighbor who regularly stops me to air his criticisms of the haredi leadership was gung-ho for last week’s Jerusalem protest rally.

The prayer gathering on Thursday drew a crowd estimated at 100,000 or more, and was the antithesis of a series of demonstrations involving a few hundred demonstrators, primarily drawn from Mea She’arim, over the past year. The broader haredi community looked on the latter with horror when they turned violent. Last week’s gathering, called by a broad cross-section of rabbinical authorities, was, by contrast, completely peaceful.

BESIDES UNIFYING the diverse haredi community, a second unintended consequence of the court’s sentencing of the parents to jail was to reinforce the most conservative elements in the haredi community. A community that feels besieged will draw the wagons tighter. At a time when many in the haredi community seek greater economic integration into the broader society, the court unwittingly gave credence to those who suspect the government of seeking to destroy haredi society, and dealt a setback to those who do not believe that relations between haredim and non-haredim are a zero-sum game.

The court foolishly chose to enter a power struggle it could not win. For haredim raised on stories of Jews throughout history who gave up their lives rather than betray their beliefs, the relatively minor “martyrdom” of two weeks in jail is little deterrent. By sentencing mothers and fathers of large families to jail, Justice Edmond Levy cast himself in the role of Antiochus trying to force each of Hannah’s seven sons to bow down to him.

Sunday’s report that he asked the attorney-general to launch a criminal investigation of haredi MKs for their criticism of the court demonstrates the degree to which he has been maddened by the desire to prevail, no matter how Pyrrhic the victory.

The court’s contempt order was not only strategically counterproductive, but legally dubious. Contempt orders normally apply only to the parties to a case. The parents were not parties to the original suit against the Education Ministry and Hinuch Atzma’i. Nor did the court’s original order direct them to do anything.

So what did the court gain from its efforts? In less than two weeks, the school year ends and the parents will be freed. And the court has already indicated that next year the Slonimer Hassidim will be allowed to establish their own fully independent school in Emmanuel or bus their children to Bnei Brak. Ironically, the ones most hurt by the court’s order are the Sephardi girls currently enrolled in the hassidic track. If no hassidic school is established next year in Emmanuel, they may be forced to return to the general Beit Ya’acov school, where a number of them have complained of being bullied for acting “too Ashkenazi” – i.e. too observant.

FROM THE BEGINNING, the dispute over the two tracks in the Emmanuel Beit Ya’acov – hassidic and general – has been falsely portrayed as a case of blatant ethnic discrimination.

It would not be surprising if there were few Sephardi girls in the hassidic track – there were, after all, few Sephardim in the areas of Eastern Europe from which Slonimer Hassidim hail – but, in fact, over a quarter of the girls in the hassidic track are of Sephardi origin.

Advocate Mordechai Bas, who was appointed by the Education Ministry to evaluate the school, found that while the split of the school was administratively improper, “it was not done with the intention of discriminating against students because of their ethnic background.”

“No parent who wanted or wants to register their daughters in the new school, and who was or is prepared to meet the conditions for doing so, has been refused,” Bas determined.

One might think that the religious restrictions in the hassidic track are too strict. (My daughter, for instance, would not have been accepted.) In the Internet age, however, when one student exposed to pornographic material can affect an entire class, the trend in all haredi schools has been toward greater protections.

And one might support a more inclusive approach, such as that of the Klausenberger Hassidim in Netanya, whose school system includes a very large percentage of Sephardi girls from the orphanage founded by the late Klausenberger Rebbe. But there are dozens of government-supported hassidic girls’ schools in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak made up primarily of students drawn from one hassidic court or another. (Ironically, when other hassidic groups broke away from the general Jerusalem Beit Ya’acov system in 1989, Slonimer Hassidim remained behind with the “Lithuanians” and Sephardim.)

The court has explicitly recognized the right of Beit Ya’acov schools to determine criteria of religious conduct. The only thing different in Emmanuel is that the hassidic track shared the same building with the general track.

The High Court did not question the finding that no parent seeking admission to the hassidic track had been turned away. Rather, Justice Levy summarily concluded that the underrepresentation of Sephardim in the hassidic track demonstrates ipso facto discriminatory intent. By that standard, the High Court is the most discriminatory institution in the country.

Levy is the only one of the 14 permanent members of the current court of Sephardi origin, a consistent pattern since 1948. Former court president Aharon Barak once told a group of journalists that it would be impossible to increase Sephardi representation on the court without diluting its quality. Yet that remark was largely covered up by the media.

AFTER THE court, the most overwhelmingly Ashkenazi institution in the country is broadcast journalism. Yet the media have been quick to hurl the racism label at Slonimer Hassidim. I listened to radio interviews in which the interviewer simply ignored hassidic parents when they cited the significant number of Sephardim in the hassidic track, and returned, without pause, to badgering them about why they discriminated against Sephardim.

The AP report of last week’s demonstrations reflected the Israeli media in willfully ignoring the undisputed fact that no Sephardi parent had been discriminated against: “Parents of European, or Ashkenazi, descent at a girls’ school in the West Bank settlement of Emmanuel don’t want their daughters to study with schoolgirls of Mideast and North African descent, known as Sephardim.”

Last Friday’s front-page headline in The Jerusalem Post described the hassidic track in Emmanuel as a “segregated” school – a characterization about as accurate as the frequent characterization of Israel as an “apartheid state.”

Indeed there are numerous parallels between the recent media treatment of haredim and the world media’s treatment of Israel – something perhaps worth pondering.

Is the haredi community free of all taint of ethnic prejudice? Of course not. There are yeshivot, for instance, where a Sephardi applicant from an impeccable haredi home will need to be better than his Ashkenazi counterpart to be accepted – a point noted critically by numerous haredi commentators last week.

But Emmanuel was not a reflection of that prejudice. And unless one believes, as some do, that it does not matter that Muhammad al-Dura was not shot by Israeli bullets because other Palestinian children may have been, it is an injustice to report the dispute in Emmanuel that way.


Wealthier CA cities ready to pay more to preserve school standards


To help protect their schools from California's unrelenting budget crisis, some communities are voting to pay more property taxes to preserve teacher jobs, smaller class sizes and electives such as art and music.

So far this year, more than 20 districts have held elections for school parcel taxes, which are levied on individual parcels of property, and at least 16 have approved them. More districts are trying to place such measures on the ballot later this year.

But the tax measures, which require a two-thirds majority to pass, are mostly winning approval in smaller, wealthier districts, according to education experts, raising worries about growing inequality between schools in rich and poor communities.

"It's a story of widening disparity," said John Rogers, who heads the UCLA Institute for Democracy, Education and Access. "Across the state, the pain is felt everywhere, but because of the unequal distribution of wealth, some areas are able to respond."

Some California lawmakers and education advocates are pushing legislation that would lower the percentage of the vote needed to pass a school parcel tax to 55 percent.

The two-thirds threshold was just out of reach for Alameda, a San Francisco Bay area city that failed to pass a school parcel tax Tuesday even though nearly 66 percent of voters approved it.

Hundreds of volunteers staffed phone banks and knocked on doors to campaign for Measure E, which would have given the city some of California's highest school taxes, with homeowners paying $659 annually. But it was fiercely opposed by commercial property owners who would pay up to $9,500 per parcel each year.

"Measure E won. It just didn't pass," said John Knox White, a parent with two children in Alameda schools. "Where else do we say that one-third of voters should have veto power over a huge majority? That's not representative democracy."

Now the 9,500-student school district is moving ahead with a plan to increase class sizes, cut adult education, eliminate its gifted student program, shorten the school year and lay off dozens of teachers and guidance counselors. Several neighborhood schools could be closed next year.

"The kind of impact it's going to have on students and incoming students is going to be immense," said Maya Robles-Wong, an incoming senior at Alameda High School. "I'm more worried for my sister and future generations of Alameda High School students."

Robles-Wong and Alameda Unified School District are among the plaintiffs in a high-profile lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of California's school finance system. They allege the system leads to unequal learning opportunities and doesn't provide enough money for students to meet the state's rigorous academic standards.

Education advocates, meanwhile, are urging Congress to provide another round of emergency money for schools, warning that up to 300,000 teachers could lose their jobs as federal stimulus funds dry up.

"I'm desperately worried about the loss of teacher jobs as we go into the fall," U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan told teachers at a meeting in Marin County Friday. "We have to take action now."

By voting to raise local property taxes at the district level, some locales are reversing a 30-year-old trend in which states took the more prominent role in education funding, said Kim Rueben, an economist with the Urban Center's Tax Policy Center. But Rueben also noted the resulting disparity: "Some places will be more able to pass these taxes than others."

Between 2001 and June 2009, 83 of California's 980 school districts approved parcel taxes, but most of those districts have less than 10,000 students and serve fewer low-income children than the average district, according to Edsource, an education research group.

The wealthy Bay Area suburb of Piedmont, which has some of California's top public schools, has passed parcel taxes seven times in the past 25 years, including two last year. Homeowners in the 2,550-student district pay more than $2,000 in school parcel taxes each year.

By contrast, Los Angeles Unified School District, the nation's second largest with nearly 700,000 students, failed to pass a modest $100 per parcel tax in June. The district is laying off thousands of teachers and other school employees as it grapples with a massive budget deficit.

Jack O'Connell, California's superintendent of public instruction, wants to reduce the threshold to pass school parcel taxes from 66.7 percent to 55 percent, which would allow more communities to secure extra money for schools and reduce inequality among districts.

"We should provide the mechanism for districts to have a legitimate shot" at passing school parcel taxes, O'Connell said. "Think about how many school districts don't even try to pass a parcel tax because they don't think they can get the two-thirds vote."

But taxpayer advocates say there should be a high bar to raise property taxes, especially at a time when many homeowners are struggling financially.

"The two-thirds threshold forces the proponents of the tax make a good argument about why the tax is needed," said David Kline, a spokesman for the California Taxpayers Association. "It gives more protection to the homeowners who will ultimately be paying a higher property tax for many years to come."


An independent school makes an attempt to revive history teaching in Britain

If it were not so poignant, it would be hilarious. Ignorance of British history among British schoolchildren has now reached the point that, in a recent survey of young people, one in six thought Oliver Cromwell had led England to victory at the Battle of Trafalgar. Nelson’s column might as well not have been erected. History doesn’t relate who those surveyed thought had won the Civil War. Henry the Fifth? Gladstone? W G Grace?

Great tranches of British history are ignored in schools, squeezed out of the curriculum by the events of the 20th century. When my daughters were doing history for GCSE, they knew more about the Nazis than the Nazis did. But ask them about earlier British history and they struggled.

David Cameron, in a fine phrase, has railed against the “tapas” approach to the teaching of history: bite-sized chunks, largely unrelated to each other. The Government will have its work cut out if it is to reverse an alarming trend. The percentage of pupils opting to take a history GCSE fell from 35 per cent to 31 per cent during the Labour years. Something meatier than tapas is needed. But what?

At one leading independent school, Brighton College, they think they have found the answer. In September 2009, the school introduced a non-examined Story of Our Land course for pupils in years 7 and 8, before the GCSE syllabus kicks in. More than three hours of teaching a week are devoted to the new course, which is an ambitious synthesis of history, geography and religion, tracing the development of the British Isles from the pre-Christian era to the present day.

"For too long, the teaching of history in schools was coloured by anti-imperialist thinking, embarrassment about battles England had won or countries it had colonised," explains Simon Smith, Second Master at the school. "The syllabus became too compartmentalised as a result. Pupils lost sight of the bigger picture. Teach children about the Anglo-Saxons, say, and they are fascinated. But how many of them are taught that far back?"

For Smith, it makes sense to teach history sequentially, rather than dipping into it at random, because young minds cope best with a simple narrative structure. "When I was at school, we were taught the Kings and Queens of England by rote. Willie Willie Harry Stee, Harry Dick John Harry Three, et cetera. That was useful, but limiting. We got the scaffolding, but not the cladding. I hope our new course does more to put historical events in their proper context."

Among 11 and 12 year-olds, the course has been a hit, particularly the classes dealing with early British history. Long before pupils get to the Battle of Hastings, they have learnt about prehistoric Britain, the emergence of the Celtic races, the Roman invasion and the coming of Christianity. "The kids cannot seem to get enough of Caractacus, St Alban, and Kings Alfred, Guthrum and Cnut," says deputy headmistress Jo-Anne Riley, who has been responsible for structuring the Story of Our Land course. "I have also been able to push forward the idea of strong medieval women like Matilda and Eleanor of Aquitaine alongside Thomas Becket."

Where old-style history teaching placed too much emphasis on facts – which monarch followed which, the dates of major battles – the Brighton College course attempts a more holistic approach. Thus the geographical shaping of Britain – how towns and villages were settled and the impact of agriculture on the land – is studied alongside the changing nature of faith, with paganism being overtaken by Christianity which, in turn, has been overtaken by the religious pluralism of the 21st century.

As the different pieces of the jigsaw begin to fall into place, pupils will be able to see that our modern democracy does not date from the 1832 Great Reform Act, but has roots stretching back hundreds of years.

The course is so ambitious in scope that, inevitably, there is a danger that less bright pupils will struggle to assimilate so much material. But better, surely, to be too ambitious than not ambitious enough. Brighton College has thrown down the gauntlet to other schools, who despair of turning out children with more than the most sketchy knowledge of British history.

"Once children see the big picture, they are able to make connections between the world they see around them and historical patterns that have repeated themselves over time," Smith says.

He believes that the course will help children to be proud of their country. "We are a mongrel race. We were invaded many times. We imported far more from others, in terms of religion and culture, than we ever exported. And it is those rich multicultural roots that make this country so special." [That's a bit absurd but it's good spin in an era of political correctness]


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