School's Out (Extract)

September 28, 2008 11:06


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Extract from an article in Issue 13, October 13, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here. Thousands of pupils from East Jerusalem are not in school because the authorities never built classrooms for them "Why am I not in school? Why I am not in school?" some 30 elementary school-aged children chant over and over in Arabic. Signs in Hebrew and English hang from their necks, reading, "Why am I not in school right now?" "Where is my place in class?" and "They took away my right to an education." On this hot, sunny Sunday morning, a week after the school year opened, these children and their parents, all Arab residents of East Jerusalem, are demonstrating in Safra Square, outside Jerusalem's city hall. While the parents mill around, holding signs and talking with one another, the kids alternate between participating quietly in mock classes on democracy, human rights and the right to education, and chanting loudly. The adults know the answer to their plaint. So do the municipality and the Education Ministry. The city, literally, has no place for them to learn. The protest has been sponsored by the East Jerusalem Parents Committees and supported by the Palestinian Al-Quds University and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel (ACRI) and Ir Amim, a non-partisan organization dedicated to finding solutions for Jerusalem's problems. "My son deserves better than this," says Jalal Hussein, 42, head of the Parents' Committee in the Shuafat neighborhood, patting his young son's head. "What kind of a future does he have without education?" he asks in well-spoken Hebrew. "Why should his future be less promising than that of any other child in Jerusalem?" More than 9,000 children from East Jerusalem are being denied access to education this year due to the lack of classrooms, according to ACRI and Ir Amim, although all Israeli children are entitled to a free public education by law. Repeated promises by both the Education Ministry and the municipality to rectify the situation have remained mere promises, in defiance of clear Supreme Court rulings. Neither the municipality nor the ministry dispute the facts: In the 41 years since East Jerusalem was annexed and the city ostensibly united, successive municipalities have never built enough classrooms for Arab children. Of the 83,000 children in East Jerusalem who do go to school, only about half attend public schools, which are run and supervised by the ministry and the municipal education department. A quarter attend various private schools, and another quarter attend schools run by the waqf (the Muslim religious authorities). An unknown number would attend public schools - if there were room for them. Israel does not officially recognize or accredit these private and religious schools and has no control over their curricula - which means that, at least in some instances, the children are taught anti-Israel and anti-Semitic themes. While some parents choose to send their children to these schools for ideological and religious reasons, some simply have no other option. Private school tuition costs about 3,000 shekels ($860) per year, says Hussein and with 67 percent of the East Jerusalem population living below the poverty line, many parents simply cannot afford it. Waqf schools vary in their price ranges, but not all parents want their children to study in such a strictly Muslim religious environment, which often inculcates strong nationalistic themes as well. The municipality and the Education ministry acknowledge that neither they, nor any other official institution, have any idea as to how many thousands of kids are out on the streets because private schools are too expensive. Both offices declined to comment specifically on the figure of 9,000. After the Six-Day War, Israel annexed East Jerusalem and many of the surrounding villages, which had previously been under Jordanian rule, and incorporated them into the municipality of Jerusalem. The residents of East Jerusalem were granted "permanent resident" status, which allows them to work and live in Israel and to vote in municipal (but not general) elections - a right that almost all have chosen not to exercise. Permanent resident status also confers eligibility for Israeli social benefits, including social security, medical insurance and the free public education mandated by the Compulsory Education Law, originally legislated in the early 1950s. However, while the number of Arabs in Jerusalem has expanded four-fold since 1967, and today stands at nearly 250,000 or over a third of the population, successive city administrations have neglected services in East Jerusalem, in general, and education, in particular. The municipality would not say exactly how much money has been invested in education in East Jerusalem since 1967, nor how much money is currently allocated each year. According to Dr. Maya Choshin, a researcher at the Jerusalem Institute for Israel Studies, an independent think tank in Jerusalem, during the 2007-2008 school year, there were 1,972 recognized public school classrooms in East Jerusalem serving 58,150 children from pre-school to 12th grade. This number is larger than the figure cited by the municipality - "half of 83,000" - because it includes students who attend what are known as "recognized but not public" schools, which are partially funded by the education ministry but not by the municipality. In Jewish West Jerusalem, there is an average of 23 students per classroom. In Arab East Jerusalem, however, this average jumps to 30 students per classroom. According to Choshin, these averaged, over-all figures are misleading. "Most neighborhoods in East Jerusalem have at least one school, but most also need more schools," she explains. "Some have boys schools but no girls schools, or the other way around. Or there are elementary schools, but not enough high schools." While Choshin says it is impossible to track exactly how many children aren't in school, she confirms that "thousands have been left behind" and are currently receiving no formal education whatsoever. In 2001, Jerusalem attorney Danny Seideman, representing 905 children from East Jerusalem, petitioned the High Court of Justice, demanding that classroom spaces be found for these children. At the time, this was one of the largest single class action suits in Israeli history. The court obligated the Education Ministry and the municipality to build 245 classrooms in East Jerusalem within four years. When none were built, the petitioners went back to court. In 2007, the ministry and the municipality promised the court that they would build 400 classrooms within five years. To date, some 500 classrooms, of the promised 645, have been built, according to a municipal spokesman. But Melanie Takefman of ACRI says that even if the municipality had built all of the promised 645 classrooms, it would be enough only for the natural growth of the school-age population and would not make up for the shortage. Chaim Erlich of Ir Amim and Takefman agree that by 2010 the deficit is likely to approach 1900 classrooms, given that little or no construction is currently under way. Abd-Karim Laafi, head of the Union of Parents' Committees in East Jerusalem and father of two children in the Beit Safafa Elementary School, says that in reality the classroom shortage is even greater, since many of the "classrooms" currently in use are in rented apartment buildings, trailers, or mobile units and are unsuitable for learning. Hussein's children have experienced this firsthand. Hussein has three elementary school-aged children who began school at the Shuafat-Gimmel Elementary School on the first Monday in September. Since the children had been transferred to what was called a "new school," he was optimistic that this would mean improved learning conditions. However, on visiting the school, Hussein and the other parents discovered that the "new school" was in reality an old warehouse, located next to a meat-packing plant in an area known for drug trafficking and crime. "After the first day, my kids came home dizzy," Hussein tells The Report. "By the end of the second day they couldn't breathe at all. The fumes from the plant made them completely nauseous. How can they learn in such conditions? There is no place for the kids to play, no ventilation and no facilities." Hussein pulled his children out of the school and wrote to the municipality requesting that an alternative arrangement be found for the children of this local district. "According to the law," says Laafi, "each student should have a minimal learning space of 1.2 square meters. In reality, they only have half a meter each. My kids have to walk on top of desks in order to get to their own seats. They use old bathrooms as learning spaces. Not a single school for Arab children in Beit Safafa meets the minimum required standards." (A bilingual school for Jewish and Arab children does exist in Beit Safafa, for those parents who chose to send their children to this school, which emphasizes bilingualism and multiculturalism.) The head of the Knesset Education Committee, Labor Party legislator Rabbi Michael Melchior, has visited some of these "classrooms." "I have been in classrooms where kids have to climb over tables if they want to move around," he tells The Report. Melchior says that while his committee has discussed the subject at length, "the government doesn't really intend to fix things. Millions are needed just to obtain land for building. The intention to invest that kind of money just isn't there. I have had some very difficult conversations with my colleagues regarding this issue," Melchior continues, as if distancing himself from the decisions of the government of which he is a part. Last June, Attorney Tali Nir of ACRI petitioned the Supreme Court to require the municipality and the Education Ministry to reimburse parents who are forced to pay private school tuition fees when their children can't find places in public schools due to the classroom shortage. In July, Nir also submitted a damages suit to the Jerusalem Magistrates Court, requesting reimbursement on behalf of seven families for the private school fees they were required to pay. Both cases are still pending. Nir is also about to petition the courts to find places for some 30 students who were rejected from the public system due to lack of space. However, she notes, "We can only petition on behalf of those who come to us. I believe places will be found for them, but what about the thousands who do not approach us?" Seideman adds that such petitions usually result in "squeezing the kids in somewhere," with the authorities counting on not all students who start the year actually staying until the year finishes. Municipality spokesperson Gidi Shmerling confirms that only half of East Jerusalem children receive public school education and acknowledges that the system is operating under severe shortages. However, he claims that the municipality is working to improve the situation. "In recent years, several new schools have been opened and tens of new classrooms have been added," he states, although he declines to provide more precise numbers. "This year, schools will be inaugurated in four new buildings." Extract from an article in Issue 13, October 13, 2008 of The Jerusalem Report. To subscribe to The Jerusalem Report click here.

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