Peres: Schools' refusal to take Ethiopian students is a disgrace
By Or Kashti • Ha'aretz
The decision not to enroll the students is "a disgrace no Israeli can accept," Peres said, speaking to 10th graders in Kfar Hamaccabiah.
Nobel Prize Laureate Desmond Tutu also commented on the issue, saying that the pictures of the children demonstrating against their discrimination on Haaretz's front page filled him with sorrow and reminded him of things he had forgotten.
"Let me give you an example," Peres told a student who asked him how to influence social processes. "In your place I would get on a bus and go straight to Petah Tikva to demonstrate against the people who object to enrolling Ethiopian students in three schools."
Peres told the students that teenagers have a huge power to move processes. "Don't hesitate, make your voice heard," he said.
The three private ultra-Orthodox schools in Petah Tikva, Darkei Noam, Lamerhav and Da'at Mevinim are persisting in their refusal to enroll 100 students of Ethiopian origin. Their principals have informed the Education Ministry that they would not attend the hearing scheduled in the ministry's director general Shimshon Shoshani's office.
Peres' statements came after it was reported that the Education Ministry is preparing to immediately pull all funding for private Orthodox schools that refuse to enroll Ethiopian immigrant children, according to various ministry sources.
Ministry officials said the funding would stop unless the schools agreed by Sunday - two days before the school year begins - to enroll all the students assigned to them.
"These schools will have to come to their senses and decide where they stand vis-a-vis Israeli society," Education Minster Gideon Sa'ar told Haaretz in an interview yesterday.
"Society craves a discourse based on values, contrary to what some cynics think," Sa'ar said. "The students leave school without knowing who Herzl was and what 'Shma Yisrael' is. We must change that. In addition to deepening Zionist and Jewish values, social and democratic aspects are also important. We must educate students to tolerance and to receive the other. These values are especially important in Israel's heterogenic and tribal society."
Sa'ar intends to stop the Jewish studies program introduced by former education minister, Yuli Tamir, to junior high students. He is planning a "Jewish heritage and culture" program for fourth to ninth-grade students, in which students will learn about the Hebrew calendar, the national anthem and flag, Jerusalem's centrality and more.
The program includes a trip to Jerusalem and encouraging students to enlist to the IDF and national service.
Sa'ar believes that liberal theories led to the destruction of the education system.
"Many countries in the world have long given up the liberal theories [emphasizing the student's centrality in the education process], which only destroy the education system," he said. "Our program is balanced. It includes teaching 'life skills' and listening to students. The balance must be shifted toward bolstering authority and creating an atmosphere conducive to studying."
"I have very liberal views and I don't come from a conservative background, but I cannot ignore the outcry of teachers and principals who feel abandoned in the daily struggle in the education arena," he added. "I remember my mother, who was a high school teacher, seeing the deterioration in students' behavior toward teachers and each other ... If we can change the conduct and discipline factors even a little it would help to improve achievements."
The violence and disciplinary problems are part of the "I deserve - I feel like it" attitude, he says.
"We have to stop this attitude," he says. "The education system has gone backward, not only in discipline but in setting goals for the students. I'm not suggesting making students stand in the corner but there's certainly room to examine some of the teaching practices of the past, like learning classical cultural landmarks by heart. Why shouldn't a student know 'Devorah's Song' by heart?"
Sa'ar is also determined to bolster the state education system in the face of the growing private school networks, which receive generous state and municipal funding.
Sa'ar promised to prepare a detailed, politically viable plan that would change this trend. He said he is well aware of the objections this will raise in the ultra-Orthodox community, whose schools comprise most of the "recognized but unofficial" education systems.
Meanwhile, the Jerusalem Post, late to the game in covering this, has a piece that explains the haredi view:
Ethiopians ask for chief rabbis' help
RON FRIEDMAN and ABE SELIG • THE JERUSALEM POST
The Israeli Association for Ethiopian Jews sent out an urgent request on Thursday for the nation's chief rabbis to intervene on behalf of the Ethiopian children who have been refused admittance to religious schools in Petah Tikva.
In a letter sent to Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar and Chief Ashkenazi Rabbi Yona Metzger, the IAEJ asks for the rabbis' personal engagement in stopping what they describe as a sin against innocent children.
The letter comes to the defense of the roughly 100 children who immigrated to Israel from Ethiopia with their parents in recent years and who are required to attend religious schools as part of their conversion process.
"To our great sorrow, the children of the Ethiopian olim are not allowed to enter the gates of some of the religious educational institutions in Petah Tikva. We would ask the honorable chief rabbis: Are these children, whose parents underwent a stringent process of conversion for two or more years, not good enough to study in all the religious and haredi schools in Petah Tikva?" read the letter.
The letter extends the accusations of discrimination beyond the three non-official recognized religious schools that have been coming under attack in recent days and focuses attention on the rest of the city's religious institutions, which have also refused admittance to the Ethiopian students.
In an interview with The Jerusalem Post, former director general of the Education Ministry, Ben Tzion Del, said that too much emphasis was being put on the non-official recognized religious schools, which belong to the national religious movement, while the haredi schools that would not accept the students were standing on the sidelines.
"Neither the haredi institutions nor those that are affiliated with the Shas party, all of which are very developed in Petah Tikva, register Ethiopian students," said Del.
According to Del the root of the problem is not in the schools but in the policies of the Chief Rabbinate, which require the children to attend religious schools but do not make all the schools take them in.
Del urged the education minister to take the matter up with the chief rabbi and have the students split up between all the schools in the city. "If there are only a few in each school, they will be pampered and embraced in the best possible way," said Del.
According to Amar's spokesman, children whose Judaism is not confirmed are urged to go to religious schools so as to strengthen their religious knowledge and practice and as an enhancement to their conversion process.
"Unfortunately," he said, "there are haredi schools that don't accept them, because they are deemed not religious enough.
"Both Rabbi Amar and Harav Ovadia Yosef sent letters to all the schools urging them to accept Ethiopian children, but to the best of my knowledge not all of them have listened. The result is that often all the Ethiopian children are condensed into separate classes, something that the parents don't want to see happen."
Dani Kassahun, director of the Representatives of Ethiopian Jewish Community Organizations, said that some of the schools use religion as an excuse. "When the parents come to register their children to the schools, they are met with answers like: 'You are not religious enough' or 'You don't keep all the commandments.'
"If the children were split up between all the religious schools equally, there would only be three or four in each class and things would be fine. Instead, they are rejected everywhere, and the result is that there is a school in Petah Tikva where each and every one of the students is Ethiopian. That school, Ner Etzion, has become a ghetto," said Kassahun.
Kassahun is skeptical about the effect of pleas to the chief rabbis. "It's not the rabbis at the top who call the shots, it's the small guys in the schools who decide the fate of the children."
Yosef Hadana, chief rabbi for the Ethiopian community, told The Jerusalem Post that in his opinion the controversy taking place in Petah Tikva is harmful for the Ethiopian community and Israeli society as a whole.
"This is no way to build a just society. Who knows what will come out of every child - a chief of staff or a government minister."
Hadana said he has faith in the country's chief rabbis, and he knows that Yosef is personally committed to the Ethiopian community and would not allow an injustice to occur.
The dispute, which has resulted in racially charged accusations from Petah Tikva parents and the Education Ministry against the schools, was still unresolved Thursday night, with the two sides trading blame over the impasse and no real end in sight.
School is set to begin across the country this Tuesday.
The story has been garnering increased attention as the school year approaches. It intensified earlier this week when the Parent-Teacher Association in Petah Tikva threatened a strike if the principals of the Lamerhav, Da'at Mevinim and Darkei Noam schools continued to refuse to enroll the pupils, while the Education Ministry's director-general, Dr. Shimshon Shoshani, threatened to pull significant funding from the schools if the pupils were not enrolled by the first day of school.
On Wednesday principals of the three schools, along with representatives from the Petah Tikva Municipality and the Education Ministry, held a meeting over the matter.
At the meeting, the ministry official delivered letters to the principals containing the names of pupils they were expected to enroll.
A source speaking on behalf of the schools told The Jerusalem Post on Thursday that during the meeting the principals had inquired as to their requests that the students should be on a par as regards Hebrew and basic math skills and should match the schools' ministry-approved requirements for aptitude, behavior and religious practice.
When told that the pupils did not match the said requirements, the principals again expressed their reservations about enrolling them and, according to the source, were then asked by the Education Ministry official to attend a meeting with DShoshani on Thursday.
"But it was unclear if they were being asked to attend a meeting or [were] ordered to appear at a [disciplinary] hearing," the source said, explaining that the principals would not agree to a hearing, as it implied that a legal decision was on its way.
"The ministry official told them it would be a meeting, but the principals said they didn't understand why, if that was the case, all Petah Tikva schools weren't being asked to send a representative," he continued.
"If there's going to be an honest, open meeting about equality in the city's schools, why would the Education Ministry invite only these three principals?" the source continued.
On Thursday the principals were again contacted by the Education Ministry, which informed them that they had "given up their right to a [disciplinary] hearing, and sanctions would be forthcoming.
"But up until then, they said that it was a meeting!" the source said.
"So the principals consulted a lawyer, who sent the Education Ministry a letter explaining their position, which states very clearly that the schools are willing to enroll Ethiopian students and have done so."
In fact, the three schools in question enrolled some 30 Ethiopian pupils last year, and have said they would accept another 50 pupils in the upcoming school year - for the first grade.
The argument of the private schools has been that older pupils scheduled to enroll in regular classes are not on the same educational level as their peers and would therefore fall behind.
In a plan devised by Moti Zaft, who heads the Petah Tikva Municipality's religious schools department, special preparatory classes for the Ethiopian pupils would be formed to help them close the educational gaps between them and the rest of the students.
While that plan has been accepted by the private schools, it has also been heavily criticized by the Education Ministry.
"Special classes are a kind of small ghetto for pupils of a certain origin," Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar said during a Knesset Education Committee meeting on Wednesday. "The schools must enroll all of the pupils. We will not accept excuses and behavior reeking of racism."
"Sa'ar should explain how a pupil who hasn't learned basic math skills is going to keep up with the fourth grade curriculum," the source close to the private schools responded.
"What is that pupil going to do in fifth grade, when they move on to fractions? He or she is going to fall behind, even with after-school tutors, and eventually be left behind. That is our true opposition here. We're looking out for these kids."
The source also insisted that the preparatory classes for the Ethiopian pupils would be located inside the private schools.
"The schools are even willing to bring them into some of the classes, to begin introducing them slowly to the pace of the lessons," he said.
But Sa'ar on Thursday remained steadfast in his position, reiterating his previous remarks during a radio interview, in which he again threatened to "take the strongest measures we can" with regard to the private schools.
"Our message," Sa'ar said, "is clear and unequivocal. The pupils must be enrolled in the [private] schools."
In the meantime, the hearing over the matter has been delayed until Sunday.
For years, haredi schools have discriminated against Sefardi students, disabled students and poorly performing students, along with Ethiopian students.
Perhaps now that discrimination will come to an end.
Tutu's fist reaction to the treatment of Ethiopian students was to tell Ha'aretz he hoped Israel's society would evolve. In the same interview, Tutu said Palestinians were paying the price for the Holocaust.
Many of us would argue Palestinians are primarily paying the price for 80 years of refusal to make peace. That intransigence strengthens Israel's right wing, and creates more Palestinian suffering. It the absence of peace, many Israelis say, all we have left is strength.