ethiopian school protest 248.88.
(photo credit: Aloni Mor/Israel Post)
The recent frenzy over the refusal of three Petah Tikva private schools to admit Ethiopian students has generated much outrage across the political and religious spectrum. Former education minister and seasoned news commentator Yossi Sarid wrote in Haaretz, "Publish it not in the streets of Oslo, lest the newspapers of the uncircumcised rejoice" and claimed that the gates of "apartheid" were being slammed in the faces of Ethiopian children. He accused the religious school system of discrimination and claimed "there is no value in education for values if one black boy remains shunned and shamed," calling the parents' associations of the schools "wicked" for not wanting the students admitted. MK Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta'al) claimed it was an example of the "plague of racism," while President Shimon Peres called the whole fiasco a "disgrace."
Despite the outcry, the response to the three schools' decision to bar Ethiopians has shown that Israeli society rejects racism. Among the 200 protesters who arrived in Petah Tikva on Monday were activists from the religious-Zionist youth group Bnei Akiva and from the No'ar Ha'oved Vehalomed youth movement. The knee-jerk reaction of some to use this as yet another reason to bash Israel and try to inform the European press about it to scream "apartheid," shows that some don't actually care about the Ethiopian children - they are only looking to embarrass the state. The actual story of what occurred is more nuanced.
THE SCHOOLS in question are private religious schools, and the Ethiopians in question are children of new immigrants, who were only recently reconnected to Judaism. Private schools here can choose what to teach, but the majority of their budget is derived from the government. There are many groups associated with what has happened in Petah Tikva, and each has a different interest. The private schools want to safeguard their status as elite institutions while the parents' organizations don't want a big portion of Ethiopian pupils admitted to just one or two schools since it would cause the schools' overall level to decrease.
And since these children are relatively new to Judaism, the only way for them to strengthen their faith is to study in a religious environment. The Sephardi religious leadership, under whose auspices these families were brought back into the Jewish fold and which has consistently campaigned on behalf of their aliya, demands that these children go to religious schools to continue to be considered Jewish. The government support for these schools means the schools must provide equal opportunities.
Another issue is that every school that accepts new immigrants receives a government bonus. Private schools, because they have additional private funding, do not have the budgetary constraints of normal schools, meaning they don't actually need to take in these immigrant children.
IT IS a tragedy to reject students based on ethnic, economic or other criteria. There should be no flexibility on this issue. One cannot take the government's money while rejecting Israeli citizens.
The real problem is not just these schools, but the general lack of consensus on this issue as a whole; numerous schools manipulate the situation regarding Ethiopian children, and only because this was a big group did the media become aware of the scandal.
In fact the problem is widespread where poverty-stricken Ethiopians are concentrated, such as in Kiryat Malachi. The students already face major hurdles; they are learning Hebrew, face economic problems and feel they do not belong in society. For them, religious schools are seen as a way to provide a deeper connection to Israel and Judaism.
The only way for them to succeed is to give them motivation, rather than leaving them behind and rejecting them. Society as a whole and the government in particular have performed admirably on behalf of these children.
Rather than trying to make political fodder of the disgusting acts of a few parents' associations and the less-than-admirable behavior of school principals and municipalities, it's essential to draw a line in the sand and send the message once and for all that no discrimination will be accepted.
The writer arrived in Israel in 1984 with Operation Moses and is involved in numerous social change organizations on behalf of the Ethiopian community.