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School controversy brings secular-haredi tensions to a boil

School controversy brings secular-haredi tensions to a boil

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From JTA news. JERUSALEM (JTA) -- The showdown between the Supreme Court and the parents of students at a haredi Orthodox school found guilty of discriminatory practices against Sephardic girls has brought already strained secular-religious relations in Israel to a fever pitch.

A remark by Supreme Court Justice Edmond Levy that the court's decisions are not subject to rabbinical approval went straight to the heart of the matter, with irate haredi demonstrators declaring that if they had to choose between the court and their rabbis, the rabbis always would come first.

The fundamental argument over whether the courts or the rabbis have the ultimate authority reflects a long-standing clash between Theodor Herzl's vision of a secular democratic state for the Jews and haredi notions of a Jewish state subject to rabbinical law.

For secular Israelis, impugning the authority of the courts means anarchy. For the haredim, overriding rabbinical rulings means perverting God's will. At issue is a test of the capacity of the Zionist, secular state to impose its will on a large group of haredim who often are derisive of its democratic, secular institutions.

The latest angry confrontation between the state and the haredim began with a ruling by the Israeli Supreme Court in April ordering a school run by Ashkenazi Slonim Chasidim in the West Bank settlement of Emanuel to stop excluding Sephardic girls from their regular classes.

In the state's view, the practice constituted a form of intolerable segregation and violated basic principles of equality and human dignity. The offending Beit Yaakov school agreed to more mixed classes.

But rather than comply, the Ashkenazi parents started their own school next door. They argued that the segregation wasn’t ethnic but religious. The Sephardic girls, they said, came from homes less strictly observant than their Ashkenazi daughters -- for example, homes with television sets and Internet connections -- and they didn’t want their daughters influenced by those who were less religious. They said Sephardic girls were welcome at the Ashkenazi-dominated school if they met the standards for stricter religious observance.

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