(photo credit: Courtesy)
Jewish Agency for Israel director general Ze'ev Bielski has called on Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar to consider easing the stipulation that children of Ethiopian immigrants must attend national religious schools during the period that their parents convert to Judaism, The Jerusalem Post has learned.
In a letter sent to Amar on Sunday, Bielski highlighted the spate of racist incidents that have come to light in recent weeks within the education system and emphasized that demanding to send the children to religious institutions is contributing to the problem.
"To my dismay, in most of these cases, the central issue is that the children of Ethiopian immigrants are made to learn in the religious school system," wrote Bielski, arguing that because of this requirement a disproportionately large concentration of Ethiopian pupils end up in a small number of schools.
"From media exposure we are becoming aware that these incidents [of segregation] are not isolated but are, in fact, a widespread phenomenon that is dividing Israeli society," he continued. "On the basis of recent events, I am of the opinion that there is room to investigate this requirement - with the aim of improving the absorption of Ethiopian children and their integration into Israeli society."
Amar, who was out of the country, could not be reached.
However, the chief rabbi's spokesman said in response that Amar had met with several school principals in the past, including from the Petah Tikva area where the most recent discrimination incident against Ethiopian pupils took place.
During the meetings, Amar urged the principals to accept Ethiopian students.
In response to Bielski's letter, the spokesman said the rabbinate's policy was to send Ethiopian schoolchildren to national religious schools.
"However, in some cases we do make exceptions," he said. He did not elaborate.
Rabbi Moshe Klein, deputy head of the Conversion Authority, the administrative body responsible for converting the Ethiopian Falash Mura (Jews whose ancestors were forced to convert to Christianity over a century ago), said it was the Ethiopian parents, not the conversion courts, that demanded the children attend religious schools.
"There have been a few cases where we have allowed the families to send their children to secular schools," said Klein. "But they were abhorred by the idea."
Sources from within the Ethiopian community confirmed to the Post that the policy of sending Ethiopian immigrant children to national religious schools has been in place since mass aliya from the African country first began over 30 years ago.
Although most haredi rabbinic authorities, including several chief rabbis of cities, require that all Ethiopians undergo a conversion "to be on the safe side [lechumra]," two former chief rabbis, Ovadia Yosef and Avraham Shapira, ruled that they did not.
As a result, Shas-run schools and national religious schools have accepted Ethiopians without a conversion, while haredi institutions, including Chabad, have not.
However, even those schools that recognized Ethiopians as Jews require that the Falash Mura convert.
A JAFI spokesman told the Post that this is the first time the head of the agency, which is primarily responsible for the Ethiopian community's aliya and immigration process, had questioned the policy and linked it directly to integration issues of the Ethiopian immigrants to Israel.
In recent weeks, the media has reported on a number of public educational institutions that have active policies of segregation between Ethiopian and Israeli-born students.
Last week, a school in Petah Tikva was discovered to have been teaching four Ethiopian students in a separate classroom from other children and forcing them to take recess at a different time because the principle perceived them "not religious enough."
On Wednesday, a collection of Ethiopian organizations is planning to hold a mass demonstration opposite the Petah Tikva municipality to protest such policies, which they claim are rife in other area schools.
The protest will also highlight racism that exists in Israeli society in general, said Avraham Neguise, director of lobby group South Wing to Zion, and a member of the Public Council on Ethiopian Jews.
In the weekly cabinet meeting on Sunday, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said Ethiopian immigrants were right to feel discriminated against and announced details of a national plan to improve their integration and absorption.