Long beards and black hats

JERUSALEM - JUNE 17: (ISRAEL-OUT) Ultra-Orthodox Jews attend a rally June 17, 2010 in Jerusalem, Israel. Tens of thousands of religious Israelis protested against a Supreme Court ruling which ordered the jailing of a group of Ashkenazi parents of European origin who have refused to send their daughters to a school with Jewish girls of Middle Eastern, or Sephardic, descent. (Photo by Uriel Sinai/Getty Images)

Good Shabbos. It's a great day to be wearing my favorite t-shirt. But it's a tough Sabbath to be an Ultra-Orthodox Jew in Jerusalem. (For last week's discussion on the use of "ultra-orthodox," click here.) Since the Israeli Supreme Court ruled Thursday that a religious girls' school had to be integrated, the Haredim have been causing a lot of trouble in Jerusalem streets.

Protesters snarled traffic in Jerusalem and another large religious enclave, crowded onto balconies in city squares, and waved posters decrying the court's decision and proclaiming the supremacy of religious law.

There were a few small scuffles, and a police officer emerged from one of them holding his eye, apparently slightly injured.

It was one of the largest protests in Jerusalem's history, and a stark reminder of the ultra-Orthodox minority's refusal to accept the authority of the state.

Also, the throngs of devout Jews showed to which extent the ultra-Orthodox live by their own rules, some of them archaic, while wielding disproportionate power in the modern state of Israel.

Harsh words. I think one of my colleagues interpreted this AP story as "WE HATE ULTRAULTRAULTRAORTHODOXJEWS SO MUCH."

But if Israel has a PR problem, and it often does, Israeli Haredim need to hire PR fix-it-man Mike Sitrick (who also needs to hire Mike Sitrick). Their image has long been hurting because of a perception in Israeli society that they're freeloading off the Jewish state -- they don't serve in the military and, because of religious convictions, the men spend time studying the Talmud instead of bringing home the kosher bacon. (Sorry.)

In a country built by a religious people, you might expect more respect for such religiously motivated life decisions. But the reasons for the protests, which have been labeled by the Israeli papers on the left, right and center as "riots," are a lot less defensible.

If like me you thought that these schools were separated based on sex, you'd be, like me, wrong. The Israeli high court's decision requires a school for Ashkenazi girls admit girls of Sephardic descent. Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, who is no left-wing nut, writes on his Beliefnet blog that these riots or rallies are really about protecting racism.

To be sure, there are myriad challenges with Israeli public schools which are divided between Arab and Jewish (itself and oxymoron since Jews from Arab lands are no less "Arab" than Muslims and Christians from the same places), so-called religious and non-religious, etc. But unlike these other schools, which students from communities outside the stated target population can and do attend, the Hareidi community wants an enforced ban ala' George Wallace standing in the schoolhouse doors.

Now back to the AP telling of this story. Generally well done, the article is constrained by a common problem for the AP: time and space. It's brief and maybe a bit abrupt because some of the context is lacking. The AP definitely fell into the ... -- trap? -- of referring to the Ultra-Orthodox as a primitive religious minority that represents nothing but the unenlightened religious ideals of a backwards people. But the article generally did a good job capturing the scene and talking to the right people.

What the AP didn't do -- and this is a bit shocking -- is explain what divides Ashkenazi Jews and the Sephardim. Sure, the story explains that Ashkenazis look like yours truly and hail from eastern Europe while the Sephardim spend much of the past five centuries in North Africa and the Middle East. But there is no discussion of why this matters.

Time expounds only slightly on this issue, which once you've read the Time article you recognize in the subtlest way back in the AP story:

Their reason? At the school, the Ashkenazi kids would mingle with religious Mizrahi kids, some of whom come from more secular extended families and therefore, say the Slonimers, could expose their sheltered daughters to unwanted influences from the wider world.

Still, much is missing, like the tense history between Ashkenazis and Sephardi. Maybe tense is the wrong word. It's been more one, at times, of contempt or at least condescension. Which leads me to the most interesting thing about the stories over these riots: while many, like the AP story, give the impression that Ultra-Orthodox Jews are an unruly sect of religious extremists wanting to return Jerusalem to the Middle Ages, they overlook an equally, if not more, significant divide in Israeli society based on different, but similarly disharmonious, stereotypes.

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