After weeks of uncertainty and just hours before the start of the first day of school, an agreement was reached Monday night over the placement of over 100 Ethiopian immigrant children in three semi-private "unofficial but recognized" Petah Tikva schools, where a racially-charged fight over the enrollment of the pupils had been steadily brewing since the beginning of the month.
According to the agreement, which was reached during a meeting between Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar, Petah Tikva Mayor Yitzhak Ohayon, and
Education Ministry Director-General Dr. Shimshon Shoshani, 30 of the 108 Ethiopian pupils in question will begin their studies on Tuesday at all three of the schools. An additional 18 pupils will begin studying in the institutions as well, but only after they arrive in Petah Tikva in the
The remaining 60 pupils, who are expected to arrive in the city throughout the school year, will be admitted to private schools, not state-run
religious institutions, as stipulated by the Education Ministry's decision.
Additionally, the Petah Tikva Municipality together with the Education Ministry will appoint a joint task force to examine the implementation of the pupils' enrollment and the general integration of Ethiopian pupils in the city's schools.
The city's parents' council had threatened to strike and disrupt the opening the new school year on Tuesday.
Sa'ar said the agreement "implements the principles" the Education Ministry had insisted upon, and would lead to equality in the schools' attitudes towards the Ethiopian children. "We will be following the implementation on the ground," he added.
Earlier Monday, Sa'ar had equated the segregation of Ethiopian students in Petah Tikva to "ghetto" conditions, saying the refusal of a number of the city's schools to accept Ethiopian students was an issue which represents "a battle for Israel's identity."
At the meeting, convened to discuss the crisis, Sa'ar aimed sharp criticism at the conduct of the Petah Tikva Municipality and the semi-private schools. "This concerns not only the three schools that have, for a long time, been deceiving the entire educational system. For years, racism has developed here undeterred," he said, noting that nobody had addressed the issue.
"We've come to the point where today there is a school, Ner Etzion, which only Ethiopian students attend," Sa'ar said. "This is how we are dealing with immigration to Israel in 2009 - a school which, in my eyes, is a type of ghetto. This is what we've come to."
Shas spiritual mentor Rabbi Ovadia Yosef threatened Monday to fire any school principal from Shas's school system who refused to receive Ethiopian students.
In parallel, Chief Sephardi Rabbi Shlomo Amar announced that it was forbidden to send Ethiopian students to the secular school system.
"If I was brought into this world only to help the Ethiopians that is enough for me", said Yosef on Monday morning during a meeting with Amar in his home in Jerusalem's Har Nof neighborhood, according to Amar's spokesman.
The spokesman said the chief rabbi ruled that it was forbidden to integrate the Ethiopians in secular state schools because many were Falashmura who were still in the process of converting to Judaism.
"If one of those children comes before a rabbinical court to convert and he or she does not know anything about Judaism it will be problematic", said Amar's spokesman.
Yosef, considered the greatest living Sephardi authority of Jewish law, was the first top rabbi to recognize certain groups among the Ethiopians as full-fledged Jews. Many have been integrated into Shas's Mayan Hachinuch Hatorani.
"Anyone who refuses to accept Ethiopians should get up and go home", Yosef said according to Amar's spokesman.
The meeting Monday morning was attended by Interior Minister Eli Yishai and Building and Housing Minister Ariel Atias.
It came a day after the Education Ministry nixed a deal reached between the Petah Tikva municipality and the city's schools on the enrollment of the pupils, and decided to pull the funding from the Lamerhav, Da'at Mevinim and Darkei Noam schools, the three semi-private institutions that refused to accept the students.
On Sunday, Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu spoke out against the rejection of Ethiopian children in schools, calling it "a moral terror attack."