MK Shlomo Molla 224.88.
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
After weeks of uncertainty and just hours before school opened for the year, an agreement was reached on Monday night on the placement of Ethiopian immigrant children in three "unofficial but recognized" Petah Tikva schools, where a racially charged fight over the admission of the pupils has been brewing since the beginning of last month.
Under the agreement, which was reached during a meeting between Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar, Petah Tikva Mayor Yitzhak Ohayon and Education Ministry director-general Shimshon Shoshani, 30 of the 108 Ethiopian pupils in question will begin their studies on Tuesday at the three semi-private schools - Lamerhav, Da'at Mevinim and Darkei Noam.
The pupils will be assigned to the schools by the Education Ministry, without any prescreening by the schools allowed.
An additional 18 pupils will also be assigned to these three schools when they arrive in Petah Tikva in the coming weeks.
The remaining 60 pupils, who are expected to arrive in the city later on in the school year, will not be assigned to the state-religious schools, but only to "unofficially recognized" schools, with assignments to be made by the Education Ministry. This could include haredi schools, though this was not specified.
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 children in the city's schools.
"The agreement that was reached represents the principles that we have made clear concerning [the pupils'] absorption into the three institutions," Sa'ar said on Monday night. "And we plan on following the way this is implemented on the ground."
The decision came after a heated Knesset Education Committee meeting held earlier in the day, in which accusations of racism over the schools' reluctance to enroll the pupils dominated the discussion. Opposition leader Tzipi Livni of Kadima and the Likud's Sa'ar both sharply criticized 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," Sa'ar said at the meeting, adding 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," he continued. "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."
Ohayon also spoke at the committee meeting, but was roundly condemned by the crowd. At one point, MK Shlomo Molla (Kadima), himself an Ethiopian immigrant who has been an outspoken supporter of the Petah Tikva pupils, called the mayor a "racist."
Before the committee meeting, Molla had spoken to a group of protesters who gathered in the Rose Garden opposite the Knesset, telling them that while he appreciated Sa'ar's leadership, the time had come to "take away the three racist schools' licenses."
"A step has been made at the right direction, but it is not enough," Molla said. "This is battle over a principle and we have to say enough is enough! No more discrimination!"
But the most raucous protests of the day took place in Petah Tikva, were roughly 300 people, mostly members of the city's Ethiopian community, took to the streets to protest against the schools.
The crowd, made up of men, women and children, blocked traffic on one of the city's main streets, carried signs and chanted "Stop Racism!"
Eventually, a police riot squad, accompanied by a Border Police unit, was brought in to remove the protesters from the road, allowing traffic flow to resume. Five demonstrators were detained for questioning.
After being removed from the street, the protesters made their way to city hall and continued their demonstration in the empty parking lot. The crowd converged on the main entrance to the building and banged on the metal barricade blocking the doors and on office windows. Some of the protesters took their anger out on an air conditioning unit that was ripped from the wall of the building.
The Ethiopian protesters were joined by members of the Hano'ar Ha'oved Vehalomed (Histadrut) youth movement, high school students from the city's state-religious schools and members of the general public.
Despite the protesters' repeated requests to enter the building and talk to those in charge of student placement, they were not allowed in. The protest's organizers vowed to return on Tuesday and for as long as it took to rid the city of racism.
"If the leaders aren't punished for their racism, we will upset the whole city," said Nadav Kalala, chairman of the all-Ethiopian Ner Etzion school parents committee.
"This is just the beginning, you haven't seen anything yet. We will not allow the private religious schools to run the city," said Dani Kassahun, director of the Representatives of Ethiopian Jewish Community Organizations.
But after the agreement was reached on Monday night, Kassahun told The Jerusalem Post that he was cautiously optimistic.
"We appreciate the education minister's initiative here, and his courage to come out and threaten to take harsh steps [against the schools], but at this point, we are going to wait and see what develops on the ground.
"If this is just lip service, and if the pupils don't end up being enrolled as this agreement says they will, we'll keep on fighting until they do. But if everything works out the way it's now supposed to, this agreement will absolutely be a solution to the problem."
Jerusalem Post staff contributed to this report.