Tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox Jews took to the streets in Jerusalem today to protest a Supreme Court order to integrate their religious girls' school. The ultra-Orthodox Jews of European heritage are refusing to allow their daughters to study with other ultra-Orthodox girls whose parents were born in Arab countries. Correspondent Linda Gradstein reports from Jerusalem.
MARCO WERMAN: Dozens of parents in Israel are in jail today serving a two week sentence. Their crime? Ignoring a Supreme Court order to integrate their school. This is not an issue of Jewish-Arab segregation, or even segregation of secular Israelis and ultra orthodox Israelis, this is about ultra orthodox parents who won't let their daughters study with other ultra orthodox girls whose parents were born in Arab countries. Linda Gradstein reports from Jerusalem.
LINDA GRADSTEIN: Downtown Jerusalem was a sea of black today. Some 100,000 ultra orthodox Jews wearing long black coats and black hats thronged the streets, snarling traffic, demonstrating against the Israeli Supreme Court decision. The parents in the case are Ashkenazim, Jews originally from European countries. They say they'd rather go to jail than see their daughters in classrooms with Sephardi girls, whose parents or grandparents came from Arab countries like Morocco, Yemen or Iraq. The school is in the ultra orthodox West Bank settlement of Emmanuel. Even though they all live together, the parents say the Sephardi girls are not as committed religiously, and could be a bad influence on their daughters. Until now, the classes have been separated. A few months ago the Supreme Court ordered the classes integrated, so the Ashkenazi parents opened a new school next door. The court rejected that as well. The parents and their supporters insist this isn't racism. Yerachmiel Fuchs, a member of the ultra orthodox community and a lawyer, told Israel television that he supports the parents in their struggle.
YERACHMIEL FUCHS: I don't believe that the issue really here is racism, although I believe that the courts are trying to make it one of racism. I believe that the right to educate one's children in the manner that they deem appropriate for their children is a parent's right and obligation.
GRADSTEIN: But others in Israel say the parents do have racist motives. Knesset member Chaim Amselem is a member of the ultra orthodox Shas party.
INTERPRETER: What kind of feeling is it that time after time you're considered a second class citizen? This is just the latest example for us.
GRADSTEIN: About 10% of the Israeli population is Haredi, or ultra orthodox, and that number is growing all the time. As the haredim tend to have large families. Ten children is not unusual. They also often had more political power than their numbers as they have been able to make and break Israeli government coalitions. The ultra orthodox are exempt from the Israeli Army. Their educational institutions are heavily funded by the state, even though they teach almost exclusively religious subjects. Rabbi Gilad Kariv is the executive director of the Israeli Reform Movement. He says Israelis have been willing to leave the ultra orthodox alone, but this case has crossed a red line.
RABBI GILAD KARIV: The main question is can we live in a multi-cultural society which is based on some shared values. One of them is the concept of the place of the courts in our democratic society.
GRADSTEIN: The parents who went to jail today have become heroes in their community. Israeli officials said special arrangements were made to give them the most strictly kosher food in jail and enable them to celebrate the Sabbath which begins tomorrow night. For The World, I'm Linda Gradstein in Jerusalem.