Itzik, an ultra-orthodox resident of Jerusalem's Bukharian Quarter, was annoyed by the presence of so many demonstrators near his home. "What are they protesting about now," he wanted to know, looking exasperated.
His manner changed dramatically when he learned that the more than fifty protestors were demanding an end to discrimination against Mizrachi students in Ashkenazi ultra-orthodox schools. "Well done. It's about time somebody did something against that," said Itzik whose grandparents came to Israel from Morocco. " Everybody knows that the Ashkenazim don't let Mizrachi children into their schools, or if they do they keep them in separate classes. My children haven't reached school age yet but I dread what will happen to them in years to come."
However, Itzik refused to allow his full name to be published for fear of reprisals by his Ashkenazi neighbors.
The protest was organized by four organizations in the NIF family: Tmura – The Israel Anti-discrimination Legal Center; Achoti - Sister for Women in Israel; Kollech – Religious Women's Forum; and Mimizrach Shemesh – The Jewish Social Leadership Center. The demonstrators gathered earlier this month outside the headquarters of the ultra-orthodox "independent education" movement to protest the systematic discrimination of Mizrachi students, before marching several miles to the Ministry of Education, which provides government funds to the ultra-orthodox schools.
Among the demonstrators was Esther Morano, Legal Advisor to Tmura, who has lodged a criminal discrimination complaint with the while also preparing a civil court suit for $14,000 in damages per student against the Bet Yaakov School in the West Bank settlement of Emmanuel. "This discrimination leaves deep scars on the children," she explains. "The Mizrachi students are made to wear different uniforms and even have different break times so the two groups won't socialize together. The school even built a wall to separate the students so they cannot see each other."
The topic has been in the headlines over the past year thanks to the efforts of the NIF family. Last March NIF's flagship grantee Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) successfully petitioned the Jerusalem District Court of Administrative Affairs, after receiving complaints from the families of 113 Mizrachi girls rejected by Ashkenazi schools in Jerusalem. Judge Yehudit Zur instructed the Jerusalem Municipality and Ministry of Education to introduce measures to end the discrimination.
"One of the difficult aspects of this struggle is that families are reluctant to go public on this struggle," stresses Morano. "Many of the Mizrachi parents in Emmanuel fear they will lose their jobs if they speak to the press. Others are storekeepers or are self-employed electricians and plumbers and would have their businesses boycotted if they cause trouble."
According to Yoav Laloum, Director of the Noar C'Halacha Youth Organization, more than one thousand ultra-orthodox Mizrachi and Ethiopian immigrant schoolchildren around Israel, mainly girls, have either been refused entry to Ashkenazi schools or are made to study in separate classes.
"My own daughter was rejected from attending first grade in the Bet Yaakov school in the Givat Shaul neighborhood of Jerusalem," recounted Laloum. "I petitioned the court and they compelled the school to accept her. The ultra-orthodox establishment has a lot of soul-searching to do. This type of discrimination is totally unacceptable."
Shula Keshet, Executive Director of Achoti, said, "We must rid Israel's entire education systems of racism; both in the schools with walls dividing Mizrachim from Ashkenazim and the many other schools with walls that cannot be seen."
The protest was well covered by the Israeli media and in response the Education Ministry was forced to issue a statement sympathizing with the demonstrators. "The Ministry condemns all forms of discrimination and separation. After investigating the school in Emannuel, a letter was sent to Bet Yaakov requiring them to rectify the situation."
Yet the status-quo remains in Emmanuel and many other ultra-orthodox schools. The NIF family will continue monitoring the situation until the pattern of discrimination changes, or at least until public funding is withdrawn from the offending schools.