Municipal workers in Beit Shemesh physically partitioned a secular school on Sunday in accordance with instructions from the city’s municipal administration, in order to provide classroom space for a haredi (ultra-Orthodox) girls’ school.
The municipal construction workers broke locks in order to gain access to the premises of the Safot Ve’tarbuyot school in the Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph neighborhood, erected a 2.5 meter wall in the school yard and separated off an entire floor of the school building for use by the haredi girls’ school, Mishkenot Daat.
The work was carried out without coordination with the Education Ministry, which issued a statement on Monday saying that the opening of the Mishkenot Daat school in the premises of Safot Ve’tarbuyot was “illegal,” and that a closure order on the newly divided facilities would shortly be issued.
On Sunday, the ministry also threatened Beit Shemesh municipal administration with a cessation of funding for the city’s education department in light of the incident if it continued to act without coordinating with the ministry.
The municipal administration, headed by Mayor Moshe Abutbul of Shas, claims that the school premises are under the direct authority and responsibility of the municipality, and that it does not need permission from the ministry when allocating usage of school premises in the city.
There were violence incidents at the school on Sunday between teachers protesting the construction and security guards who accompanied the construction workers, while further scuffles broke out on Monday, during which several people attempted to knock down the wall built in the courtyard.
State-run schools in Beit Shemesh staged a semi-strike on Monday, the first day of the academic year, in protest at the developments, and held discussions on tolerance instead of holding formal lessons.
The Safot Ve’tarbuyot elementary school and is attended largely by secular pupils in the mixed neighborhood, which has become increasingly haredi in recent years.
Families of pupils at the school used to live in Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph, but gradually moved out and now most pupils live outside of the neighborhood.
Additionally, the number of pupils in attendance at the school has dropped, and capacity in its classrooms is considerably higher than the number of pupils enrolled. The municipal administration says that there are 144 pupils registered at the school with a total capacity for 500.
Beit Shemesh suffers from a chronic lack of classroom space, with many schools having to suffice with caravan- style mobile structures in which to hold lessons.
One school that has been without adequate premises for several years is Mishkenot Daat, the haredi Beit Yaakov school for girls.
Some three years ago, Mishkenot Daat sought permission to take over part of the classroom space in Safot Ve’tarbuyot, but the proposal was ultimately denied by then education minister Gideon Sa’ar.
Last week, the education committee of the municipal council held a hearing on how to use the Safot Ve’tarbuyot property and decided to divide it up and use part of it for Mishkenot Daat.
On Sunday morning, civilian contractors employed by the municipality came to begin construction work to divide the school, but were faced with protest by teachers and parents.
They subsequently returned at 03:00 in the morning to complete the work.
The school consists of two floors, which have separate external entrances but that are also connected by a staircase. The staircase was sealed off, preventing access between the floors and paneling used to further divide the school premises. The ground floor is allocated for Mishkenot Daat, and the upper floor was left for Safot Ve’tarbuyot.
“This is how this municipal administration conducts its affairs, like a thief in the night?” asked Eliyasaf Varman, a member of the municipal council for the opposition Bayit Yehudi party.
“Such behavior cannot be permitted, instead of trying to take the whole city forward together, the mayor tries to steal classrooms at night and then builds a separation wall that gives the message that these [haredi] children can’t even look at children from a different background,” Varman told The Jerusalem Post.
He said he acknowledged the severe lack of classroom space in the city and the problems facing Mishkenot Daat, but insisted that the Education Ministry has provided permits and financing for more than 100 new classrooms in Beit Shemesh that have yet to be utilized by the mayor’s administration.
A spokesman for Abutbul said that the injustice was to the girls of Mishkenot Daat, adding that some of them lacked even caravans for learning in.
Speaking to the Post, he argued that the low number of pupils at Safot Ve’tarbuyot and the dearth of classroom space in the city meant that it was unreasonable not to allocate part of the building to Mishkenot Daat.
The haredi girls lived close by in the Ramat Beit Shemesh Aleph neighborhood, whereas the pupils at Safot Ve’tarbuyot live further afield, he added.
The spokesman denied that the municipality needed to coordinate its construction work with the Education Ministry, saying that the school premises were entirely at the disposal of the city and its educational needs.
He also claimed that the wall in the school yard was built for the benefit Safot Ve’tarbuyot, to head off any claims that the haredi community was trying to make the school haredi.
Claims that funds for new classrooms remain unused were “incorrect,” he said, adding that four schools had been opened for the new academic year.
In a video posted to the Kikar Hashabbat news website, Abutbul that he was happy that the academic year had begun at both Safot Ve’tarbuyot and Mishkenot Daat.
“It’s true that it was accompanied by a short, surgical procedure to take a wing that was not in use by Safot Ve’tarbuyot for the benefit of pupils who didn’t have anywhere to be and were in the street,” Abutbul said.
“It’s not easy, but at the end of the matter, I said in my speech to President [Reuven Rivlin] that we are taking difficult, yet considered, decisions,” he said. “We have to understand that every child in Beit Shemesh is my pupil and I have to look out for all, and I hope, God willing, that the integration will contribute to the fraternity of our city Beit Shemesh.”
After examining the incident, however, the Education Ministry issued a statement saying that the opening of Mishkenot Daat facilities in Safot Ve’tarbuyot was illegal.
“The ministry views with extreme severity this opportunism conducted by the local authority, which tried to open an educational institution two days before the beginning of the academic year,” it said.
“This behavior is one-sided, callous, and harms the fabric of relations between the different communities living in Beit Shemesh,” the ministry said. “It should be emphasized that the ministry offered the local authority appropriate alternative structures but the local authority rejected this alternative.”
“The ministry clarified to the local authority that it does not intend to allow the [Mishkenot Daat] school to operate on the premises of Safot Ve’tarbuyot, and that it intends to utilize all tools at its disposal to deal with this incident,” the ministry added.