(photo credit: Ron Friedman)
With less than a week to go until the beginning of the new school year, no solution has been found for the roughly 100 Ethiopian immigrant children in Petah Tikva who have been refused admission to the city's non-official recognized religious schools.
Education Ministry General Director Dr. Shimshon Shoshani is expected to meet with the schools' principals on Thursday to resolve this issue, according to unconfirmed reports.
In the meantime, Petah Tikva Mayor Yitzhak Ohayon has reached a compromise with the three schools in question, whereby 50 of the Ethiopian students - those entering first grade - will be accepted, with a solution still pending for the remaining children who are slated to be entering higher grades.
The issue arose after the Parent-Teachers Forum of the state-religious schools complained that the responsibility of absorbing the Ethiopian students had unfairly fallen on them.
"The absorption of new immigrants is an important mission, but it is far from simple. The immigrants require lots of resources, both during and after school hours. It doesn't make sense that less than 10 percent of the population should be responsible for absorbing them," said the forum's chairman Nir Orbach.
Orbach said that 647 out of the 2,500 students who attended state-religious schools in the city last year were Ethiopian immigrants, compared to only 70 Ethiopian students in all of the city's other schools combined. "The situation got so bad that one school was closed down. For years it only served Ethiopian students and registration to it ceased completely."
The non-official recognized religious schools operate under special licenses granted by the Ministry of Education. Though most of the schools in Israel that fall under this category are haredi institutions, the ones concerned in Petah Tikva belong to the National Religious movement.
Schools that fall into the category of non-official recognized education are often referred to as private schools, though the term is somewhat misleading as they still receive a majority of their funding from the state and local councils.
While Petah Tikva has dozens of schools, the immigrant children are actually limited to only seven of them - four state-religious and three non-official recognized religious. The rest are either too secular or too Orthodox.
"The Orthodox schools won't accept the Ethiopian children either, but it's less of a problem because the children and the parents don't want them to go there anyways," said the city's spokesman, Hezi Hakok.
The state-religious schools forum, together with the Petah Tikva Parent-Teacher Association, have threatened to go on strike and not allow the school year to begin until a solution is found.
Orbach said he doesn't think that the non-official recognized schools' rejection of the students is due to prejudice on the part of the students or their parents, but rather fear of the unknown.
"These are parents who sent their children to different schools so they can better protect them. They don't understand how much absorption actually helps, not only the immigrant children, but their own as well."
Dani Kassahun, director of the Representatives of Ethiopian Jewish Community Organizations (REJCO), a coalition of 18 national Ethiopian immigrant organizations, disagrees.
He said that the private-religious schools' rejection of the students is "racism plain and simple."
"It is a sad thing that in the liberal and democratic state of Israel, in the year 2009, such a brutal phenomenon is taking place. It is a problem that should be treated forcefully," said Kassahun. "The responsibility falls on the Ministry of Education and the regional council. They must take strong measures to solve this situation. We have heard our fill of statements and promises. We want to see them take action."
Kassahun demanded that the schools close down unless they are willing to accept the Ethiopian students. When asked if the children would want to attend a school where they were made to feel unwelcome, he responded that the children just want a good education and would go wherever they were accepted.
Over the last few weeks, efforts to find a compromise were made by various representatives of the municipality. One suggestion, proposed by Moti Zaft, head of the religious schools department, was to form special classes for the Ethiopian children to help them close the pedagogic gaps between them and the rest of the students, the main reason cited by the private schools for their unwillingness to accept the immigrant pupils.
Another suggestion, which was accepted by the city's non-official recognized religious schools, was to split up all the children equally among all the schools.
So far the Ministry of Education has been adamantly against the idea of forming special classes for the Ethiopian students.
Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar said he unequivocally demanded that the students be put in regular classes and that segregated classes where like "small ghettoes."
He said he would punish the schools if they continued in their refusal, by pulling funding and revoking their licenses.
Opposition leader Tzipi Livni spoke out against the phenomenon at an education conference in Holon on Wednesday.
"It reflects a bleak and unacceptable reality in a country whose main values include immigrant absorption. I know that the minister of education was shocked as well, but the real test will be in implementation and on September 1 we will see if there are schools who close their doors to Ethiopian children."
Livni added that even though she was the head of Kadima, it was paramount that there be no disagreement on this issue.
A source speaking on behalf of the private schools said that the characterization of the schools as "racist" were unfair. The source said that the schools had already agreed to the mayor's proposal to accept 50 first grade students and in fact already had enrolled 30 students of Ethiopian heritage in previous years.
According to the source, the reason the Ethiopian children weren't accepted was because they didn't meet the schools' articles of association. "The schools each employ a ministry-approved set of regulations laying out requirements for aptitude, behavior and religious practice. Most of the older children don't possess the required academic background for them to integrate properly in the class. It is pedagogically wrong to include these students in the regular classes. They are too far behind. Including them in regular classes will harm both the immigrants and the regular kids."