Balak: Seperate But Equal

Arutz Sheva had a great interview with a man who was being sent to prison for wanting to send his child to a religious school according to his values. At the time, he and the others were being danced to prison. The interviewer asked, “I see you carrying a sign that says, “I am a Sphardi father”. He replied, “Yes… I’m Yemenite…” then putting on a big smile, “… and I’m being sent to prison for ‘racism’”.

Shortly after I sent my dvar Torah last week, I received a response from somebody in the US telling me that Harry the Worker DOES know more than Torah Leadership, and that everyone on the Internet knows more going on here than we do, thanks to their access to blogs and the Israeli left-wing media, while we merely live here… and see things first hand....

I was accused of being intellectually dishonest about not speaking about all the racism that occurs here in Israel (i.e. the white Ultra-Orthodox against the poor Sphardim). However, he made a wonderful point, bringing up the concept of “Separate but Equal”, accusing the evil Ultra-Orthodox of doing just that, and that Separate but Equal is an evil thing. So… that’s what this week’s Dvar Torah is about.

Separate But Equal: The Torah Supports It.

I bet that line caught your attention.

Before I begin; a few quick points. Before this dvar Torah was sent out, it was reviewed by several people who have been living here for a long time. The group includes Ashkenazim and several Sphardim. They have all lived here longer than I, several for decades, and two people in particular are very involved with the schooling system here. Some parts were even gone over with a rav in the community to make sure loshon horah wasn’t put it. I wanted to make sure that they go over it first to confirm what I’m saying.

The second thing is: Yes. Racism does exist in the religious community and it’s wrong. It’s done, and in Israel there is no shortage of it coming from any one community. I heard of a case of a Syrian Sphardi being disowned by his family for marrying a Moroccan Sphardi (lower class on the Sphardi Scale). I know a Sphardi friend (one of the reviewers of this Dvar Torah) who had his whole culture attacked by an Ashkenazi. I’ve seen Chassidim being made fun of by Sphardim. It happens here as well, no group guiltier than the other. Even Americans get targeted by all groups. People think that Americans automatically fit into a certain category making it harder for Americans to integrate. Racism can also occur with children on the playground, just like anywhere else. It does NOT necessarily mean they get it from the home or school (my daughter guessed Sphardim and Ethiopians were brown-skinned because they ate unhealthy food). Obviously, it’s something that needs to be stamped out by parents and teachers. But one thing needs to be made clear which Americans cannot seem to realize: NO GROUP has a worse record than the other. People mistakenly think that it’s the white Ashkenazim attacking the poor Sphardim. This is simply not true. Racism is just as prevalent the other way, whether from adults or children. Incidentally, I’ve noticed, those who frequently make the charge that Ashkenazi members of the Ultra-Orthodox community make broad generalizations against Sphardim, have no problems whatsoever about making broad generalizations against the Ashkenazi members of the Ultra-Orthodox, especially against the Chassidim. It seems according to them, making broad generalizations is not okay against some, but okay against others.

The third thing is that while Chassidim are technically Ashkenazim, I’m referring them as Chassidim and the general Lithuanian community as Ashkenazim to avoid confusion.

The fourth thing is most important. If you have no ability to rid yourself of cultural bias, you should not continue to read this. Israel is NOT America. Israelis are NOT Americans. Society here is very different than that in America. If you put your cultural values and beliefs on Israeli society, you will have an incorrect view on life here. Those who move here and are unable to integrate, always end up going back.
Ashkenazim here are different than those in America. Sphardim here are different than those in America. Chassidim here are different than those in America. While "the melting pot" and multiculturalism are great in America, they do not exist here. Each group is distinct and has its own flavour. There is no reason that Sphardim should not be proud of their heritage and traditions, Chassidim theirs, and Ashkenazim theirs. While we DO live together and work together, we also understand that "each tribe" has on its own power, and each group is proud of it. “Armchair Israelis” (those who know so much about Israel because they have an internet connection), due to their limited, if any, experiences in Israel, think that just as there are few differences between the three groups in America, it must be the same in Israel. They think that it’s a matter of pronunciation, a few different halachos, a few different traditions, and that’s it. The reality is, in Israel, the differentiation between the groups is much stronger. Again, we must shed our cultural bias aside to fully understand the situation.

Therefore, if you cannot be open-minded enough to put your American values to the side, please don’t continue reading.

“Billam raised his eyes and saw Israel dwelling according to its tribes, and the spirit of G-d was upon him.” (Bamidbar 24:3)

“He saw each and every tribe dwelling unto itself and they were not intermingled” (Rashi)

We see from the above pasuk in this week’s parsha that the Jewish nation lived with each tribe dwelling separately from the others. Everybody was “separate but equal”, with the exception of Shevet Levi, who Hashem made very clear was above the rest. Is this racist? I don’t think so; after all, Hashem set it up that way. Each tribe had its unique elements which contributed to the whole of the nation.

So too with Ashkenazim, Sphardim, and Chassidim. I will only focus on the Israeli “version” of these groups, since here they are not “watered down” by the melting pot of America, and I have more connection to Israeli Jewry than to American Jewry.
In Israel, religious schools are created by ethnicity. Ashkenazim set up their own, Chassidim set up their own, and Sphardim set up their own. Since most of these schools receive little support from the government, each has room to decide who they take in as students. This is not a matter of racism. Each group educates according to their culture and heritage. All parties involved want this system so they can educate their children according to their way (please reread that line with a special emphasis on the first word). If a Sphardi family wants their child to go to a Chassidic school, that means they don’t mind their child learning on a Chassidic track following the rules of that school, whatever they may be. If they do mind, they simply send them to a Sphardi school. There is no issue of forcing somebody to go to a school that they don’t want to go (unless the Supreme Court orders it and threatens you with imprisonment)
According to my “Sphardi Sources”, the problem today is that the Sphardi political leadership has failed to build proper Sphardi schools in terms of quantity or quality. While there are certainly high ranking Sphardi schools, their numbers do not match their growing population. Therefore, many good Sphardim try to get their children into Ashkenazi schools. The Ashkenazi schools will generally accept the Sphardim, but put a limitation on how many Sphardim and Chassidim they accept, and on condition that they follow Ashkenazi rules, simply because it's an Ashkenazi school. In one city that I know if, it's the opposite. There's a very good Sphardi school where Ashkenazim try to get into, but their numbers are limited because it's a Sphardi school out to cater to Sphardim. If Ashkenazim want to join, they need to adhere to the rules and regulations set out by the Sphardi school. If they don’t like the rules… they find another school.

It's that simple. No racism. Just different cultures.

Of course, and Armchair Israelis cannot fathom this, but every group has their “group negatives”. Negative values that, unfortunately, permeate throughout their culture. Americans call this stereotyping and look down on it. Israelis call is “calling a spade a spade” and live with it. This is not a blog with open ‘talkbacks’ and being so, I try to keep this away from loshon horah, so I won’t go into details about who has what issues. However, you should know that each group has issues, and these legitimate issues also play a role in how many of X get into a Y school. You want to call it racism? Ashkenazim, Sphardim, and Chassidim, all call it reality here. While Americans can sometimes get too sensitive to political correctness and stereotyping, the rest of the world doesn’t necessarily have to follow suit.

When the local Sphardi school opened up, they asked the Ashkenazi school to limit (read: discriminate against) the amount of Sphardim they accept, so the Sphardi school can build its numbers. The school chose not to discriminate. So… the Sphardi school has started out nice and small. Why? Because, while there are plenty of Sphardim in the community, this school only wanted kids with families that met certain minimal religious requirements, just like the school in Emmanuel. Since there are not too many, their numbers remain small. They also limited Ashkenazim who can attend. So what happened? This Sphardi school discriminates against their fellow Sphardim and Ashkenazim. Is that racist? No. These Sphardim wanted their children raised in a proper Torah, Sphardi environment.

I asked my Sphardi friend why it is that the Sphardim have so few good yeshivas. He replied that Sphardim as a (political) body have weak community-wide organizational skills (that surprised me), and have a hard time getting things like that together. He told me that it's a big problem which many Sphardim are complaining to their leaders about, and is slowly turning around. In the meantime, however, a few Sphardi politicians have been trying to put the blame on others to cover themselves. Instead of building schools, they are trying to shift everybody’s eyes over to the successful Ashkenazim and Chassidic schools which are growing day by day.

As mentioned, the cultures here are stronger than their counterparts in the US. We have a Sphardi family living on top of us in the building. Wonderful people. Bnei Torah. Good children. Etc... Would anybody suggest a match between our kids and theirs for marriage? Of course not. Why? Do we think we're better than each other? No. We're simply too different. Their lifestyle is different than ours. They way we think and our tracks in life are different than theirs. Our kids could play together and we can share simchas together. We get along perfectly, but our cultural background is so different, that a marriage wouldn't work out so well (of course, there are exceptions). This is not evil Ashkenazi views on Sphardim... why do you think there are so few marriages between Ashkenazim and Chassidim? Different cultures.

When my wife and I were looking to move to a new neighborhood, one idea came up, but we rejected it, because it was predominantly a Sphardi community. Are we racist against Sphardim? Of course not… we simply need to live in a community that has people with a similar cultural mindset as we. Same with another community we looked at. It was Chassidic and we rejected that as well, for the same reason. Thankfully, we found a neighborhood with a nice mix (albeit, I would prefer more Chassidim).
We all have our strengths and weaknesses and we should all be working together to serve Hashem properly. At times we come together as one nation, and at other times, we do things apart, each according to their gifts. There is nothing wrong with this idea. In Eretz Yisroel, this is how religious Sphardim, Chassidim, and Ashkenazim all view the education system. There is certainly no room for the mentality of we’re better than you, but there is room for each tribe to work individually, and at the same time, together, according to their strengths to serve Hashem.

Have a good Shabbos!