For most of Jenny Baruchi’s life, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem meant nothing more than the cluster of buildings her mother, a cleaning lady, had to mop, scrub, and dust every day. Whatever hopes she may have had to one day attend the prestigious institution herself grew dimmer when she gave birth to her first daughter, and soon thereafter to her second. She found work as a receptionist at a garage and took on a string of jobs in the afternoons and on the weekends, often working 14-hour days. This, she thought, was what life would be like forever, what life was like for her mother, and what it would most likely be like for her daughters. But it was a life Jenny refused to accept.
One day, after turning 30, she took the bus to the university and asked to be enrolled. She was interested in studying Hebrew literature and theater. These weren’t exactly what one might call practical things to study, but Jenny had a passion for language and art; besides, she thought, a college degree, any college degree, would help her get the sorts of jobs that didn’t require spending her days breathing in exhaust fumes. She was accepted, and she prepared for classes with joy.
To make ends meet, Jenny applied for the stipends that the state guarantees by law to poor students, as well as for the myriad tax exemptions to which a person in her position is entitled. Without them, she realized, there was little chance of making it through. Then a curt letter from the state arrived: You are not eligible for any stipends, it informed her; kindly don’t apply again.
Confused, Jenny took the letter to a Jerusalem city councilman she knew and trusted. Why, she asked him, was she being denied the very same privileges awarded each month to hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students? Why would the government sponsor those who study Talmud but not those who study Yehuda Amichai or Amos Oz? Why the double standard?
No explanations were evident apart from the obvious political ones. In Israel’s fractured electoral system, the ultra-Orthodox parties still wield an obscene amount of power and influence, and the laws governing aid to unemployed students were designed to benefit their constituents, the majority of whom do not work and spend their days studying Torah. But a law, Jenny thought, was a law; it couldn’t discriminate between the ultra-Orthodox and the secular. She decided to appeal to the Supreme Court.
This was in 2000. She heard nothing. Struggling, taking on odd jobs wherever she could find them, she managed to complete her studies and began a master’s degree in social work at the university. She was determined to spend her life helping women who suffered the misfortunes she had had to overcome. For a decade, no word came from the court.
Until this week. The discriminatory policy, the court finally ruled, was to be overturned immediately. The ultra-Orthodox politicians called it an “evil verdict,” and promised to resist.
Instead of making inflammatory statements, they would do well to take a look at this week’s haftorah. There, they would find the story of one Jephthah. Here’s what we know about him: “Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty man of valor, and he was the son of a woman harlot, and Gilead begot Jephthah. And Gilead’s wife bore him sons; and his wife’s sons grew up and drove Jephthah out, and they said to him, ‘You shall not inherit in our father’s house for you are the son of another woman.’ And Jephthah fled from his brothers and he dwelt in the land of Tob.” Needless to say, Jephthah’s siblings are soon forced to swallow their pride and beg their brother to come back and deliver them from the evils of the Ammonites. He does, but not before he extracts a promise to be installed at the head of his clan. It’s a classic tale of the underdog’s revenge.
Jephthah’s spirit seems to be running rampant in contemporary Israel. A day after ruling in favor of Jenny Baruchi, the Supreme Court judged that the yeshiva in Immanuel, an ultra-Orthodox settlement, was legally obliged to allow Sephardic female students to study together with their Ashkenazi peers. The school made headlines in recent weeks for its refusal to allow such ethnic intermingling, and, reacting to the court’s ruling, some ultra-Orthodox politicians sounded defiant. Moshe Gafni, a member of Knesset with the Degel HaTorah party, promised that the ultra-Orthodox community will not respect the Supreme Court’s ruling. Instead, it will instruct its members to go to jail en masse rather than desegregate the school.
“These photographs will be published worldwide,” Gafni threatened, describing the potential aftermath of the court ruling. “There will be no escape from thinking about what happened in other countries at other times when ultra-Orthodox Jews with side locks and beards went to jail.”
And go to jail they did, supported by tens of thousands of demonstrators, marking the deepest rift yet between Israel’s secular and ultra-Orthodox populations. Most secular pundits decried the community’s refusal to desegregate in universalist terms, citing the precedent of the American south in the 1950s. But there’s a distinctly Jewish argument to be made as well, one that argues that nowhere in the Jewish codex is ethnic segregation commanded or even defended, and one that puzzles over the fact that some of Judaism’s brightest minds, from Maimonides to Rabbi Yosef Karo, would, most likely, have been locked out of Immanuel’s school.
An ultra-Orthodox leadership that is primarily concerned with punishing the metaphorical sons of another woman—the secular, the Sephardic, an assortment of other Others—should be ashamed of itself. One could only hope that this Shabbat, in the shuls of Jerusalem or Immanuel or Bnei Brak, the heroic story of Jephthah’s rise will soften hearts and open minds.