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.