The fight against discrimination faced by Mizrahi children in the ultra-Orthodox education system was one of the main reasons for the establishment of the Shas Party in the early 1980s. When Aryeh Deri resumed leadership of the party five years ago — he left when indicted for corruption in 1993 — the issue was still relevant. The old-new party chairman announced that he would continue to fight against discrimination and even threatened to shut down seminars (ultra-Orthodox high schools for girls), which grant preference to Ashkenazi (of European origin) over Mizrahi (of Arab states/Middle Eastern origin) students.
But over the years, Deri moderated his statements and became less and less determined to fight these institutions. This culminated in an angry response he gave to the Shas Party conference last February. When asked about the issue of discrimination, he responded, "Is that really the most pressing issue we face? How many boys have nowhere to go? How many girls have nowhere to go? Is that really the problem? True, there is a small minority who don't get in because of various problems or because they're unsuitable or simply because they are unsuccessful …"
What the next story illustrates is that despite the Shas chairman's impatience, the problem has not really been solved. Yael, 13, from Jerusalem, comes from a Mizrahi ultra-Orthodox family of North African origins. Today, almost three months into the school year, she is still sitting at home. The ultra-Orthodox schools where she lives preferred to accept Ashkenazi students instead of her, even if the girls are not from Jerusalem, so there was no room for her. Her mother, Rachel, who asked not to divulge her last name, told Al-Monitor that when searching for another school that would agree to accept her daughter, the administrator of one seminar recommended that she send Yael to a school across town, because "she will feel more comfortable there. Everyone there is just like her." The school he was talking about has a decisive majority of Mizrahi students.
Yoav Lallum is a Mizrahi activist involved in the struggle against this phenomenon. He told Al-Monitor that there are dozens of girls just like Yael who do not go to school because the administrators of the ultra-Orthodox seminars refuse to accept them. In a conversation with Al-Monitor, Lallum charged that the supervisor of ultra-Orthodox education at the Education Ministry collaborates with these seminars and fails to prevent discrimination. He said that the ministry operates on the basis of a quota system in these schools, so that 25-40% of the students must be Mizrahi, but above that there is no room for more.
"The Shas movement no longer fights for these students," Lallum said. "Its leaders make sure that their daughters get accepted into the right seminars as part of the existing quotas." The fact is that over the years, one of the main complaints that the Mizrahi community leveled against the Shas leadership was that instead of creating a high-quality educational alternative, they send their children to the same schools identified with the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox elites.
Knesset member Ya'akov Margi of Shas is considered to be the foremost fighter among all his Shas colleagues against this problem of discrimination. On Nov. 13, he convened the Knesset's Education Committee, which he heads, for another discussion of the issue. At the session, Margi was emphatic that the heads of the seminars practice discrimination on the basis of ethnic origins and accused two Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox politicians — Knesset members Moshe Gafni and Meir Porush — of backing this discrimination instead of preventing it.
Yitzhak Zehavi, the (secular) head of the ultra-Orthodox Division of the Ministry of Education, claimed that the vast majority of problems and complaints have already been handled and that there are only a handful of girls left without a school. During the discussion, Lallum presented the case of a Mizrahi girl, who was not accepted into one of the seminars. He claimed that Zehavi rejected her appeal, preferring instead to accept the excuse given by the school's administrator that the girl was insufficiently ultra-Orthodox. The problem was that her parents owned a television set even though it was in storage, it was claimed.
Talking to Al-Monitor, Margi accused the Education Ministry and Zehavi of piling up enormous difficulties to counter his effort to fight against discrimination. While he admits that there has been a drop in the number of girls being kept out of Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox schools, from several hundred just five years ago to dozens, the phenomenon still exists and its scope is significant. He said that the drop can also be attributed to girls from Mizrahi backgrounds being redirected to seminars of lower standards, where there is no competition over places.
Together with Knesset member Meir Cohen of Yesh Atid, Margi has been trying to pass legislation that would prevent discrimination of this kind by imposing punitive measures against the schools' administrators. Much to his embarrassment, his own party, Shas, opposed his proposed legislation, apparently to avoid getting into conflict with the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox Yahadut HaTorah party. Growing criticism of Shas from its own voter base and the party's tendency to distance itself from the traditional Mizrahi community in favor of the Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox, as Mazal Mualem analyzed here two weeks ago, has resulted in the party falling below the electoral threshold in a poll published Nov. 19.
In addition to all this, Deri, who already served time in prison for corruption, is in danger of being indicted again for corruption. He is searching desperately for a way out, which would prevent the disappearance of the movement founded by Rabbi Ovadia Yosef 35 years ago. On the one hand, in an effort to show that he is not afraid of new elections, Deri expressed his opposition to an initiative by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu to lower the electoral threshold. At the same time, however, he is also examining the possibility of joining Yahadut HaTorah in the next election. This would explain why he did not really back Margi's initiative to combat discrimination in Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox institutions. So far, Yahadut HaTorah isn't too excited about the possibility of running together with Shas at the next elections. One ultra-Orthodox politician who was involved in the issue told Al-Monitor that the chances of that happening are slim, but the discussions continue nonetheless.
The one person trying to assist Shas is Netanyahu. The ultra-Orthodox party now has seven Knesset members in his coalition. If, however, it fails to pass the electoral threshold, it could hurt Netanyahu's chances of forming the next government. On the other hand, even if Netanyahu succeeds in lowering the electoral threshold, or even if Shas makes it into the next Knesset in some other way, its decision to abandon the struggle against discrimination in educational institutions is evidence that it is no longer taking any action to advance the interests of its own electorate.