Education and Politics: Old issues, new fears

All too often, the problem of the lack of sufficient classrooms in the haredi sector ends up being resolved by “lending” classrooms, courtyards or complete buildings to haredi schools or preschools.

Rivlin at Haredi school in Jerusalem, August 16, 2015 (photo credit: AMOS BEN GERSHOM, GPO)
Rivlin at Haredi school in Jerusalem, August 16, 2015
(photo credit: AMOS BEN GERSHOM, GPO)
Although the acute shortage of classrooms exists mainly in the city’s Arab sector, the situation in the haredi sector is not much better.
Unlike what is happening in the Arab neighborhoods – where the lack of classrooms compels a large number of parents to send their children to private Muslim schools – on the Jewish side, all too often the problem of the lack of sufficient classrooms in the haredi sector ends up being resolved by “lending” classrooms, courtyards or complete buildings to haredi schools or preschools, thus adding more tension, mistrust and eventual hatred between the two communities.
That is exactly what has been going on in Ramot since the beginning of the new school year last week.
On one side, we have the Ohel Rahel haredi girls’ school on Recanati Street. On the other side of the small park between them, on Idelson Street, is the Harel state religious school. There are some 900 pupils in Ohel Rahel and only 300 in Harel. The latter is the last state school in that part of the neighborhood, which over the years has seen some of the stormiest struggles between the haredi and pluralist sectors.
Last week, less than a day before the start of the new school year, Mayor Nir Barkat summoned the board of the local neighborhood council and the representatives of the parents’ association to announce that he had decided to hand over to Ohel Rahel not only a part of Harel’s schoolyard (to install two mobile structures to serve as additional classes), as had been agreed upon, but also an entire floor of the Harel building, including the open space dedicated to the disabled pupils, as well as four classrooms. The parents’ and council’s reaction was an outburst of anger. From there, the road to public protest, including disruption of studies and demonstrations, was very short – including a serious threat for all schools to go on strike.
Some of the strong reaction could be explained through a long history of problematic relationships between the parties in Ramot, specifically around these two schools. In fact, the Harel school was the target and the scene of some of the ugliest struggles about a decade ago. The growing number of children in the haredi school already required a solution, most likely the construction of an addition to the existing building or the construction of another one nearby.
At the time, the president of the finance committee at Safra Square was deputy mayor Eli Simhayoff, head of the Shas list at city council. Strangely enough, he refused to finance such construction projects. This reporter was present when Simhayoff, asked why he was not promoting such sorely needed construction, replied that he would not lend his hand to it as long as there were state (religious or secular) schools in the neighborhood with decreasing numbers of pupils, arguing that it was just “a matter of time before the state schools become empty and will naturally be handed over to us.”
As a result, almost no construction for haredi educational institutions was approved or carried out, which led to the present situation – more than 900 girls packed into a small building, while a few meters away stands a half-empty building that serves a reduced number of pupils in the state (pluralist) education stream. Last year, finally, a new building for Ohel Rahel was approved, and it is now under construction. Yet meanwhile, the shortage of space has become unbearable.
Oddly, many haredi city council members deny the assumption that they were behind the request.
Even the two councillors who hold the portfolios of the education in the public stream – deputy mayors Dov Kalmanovitch (Bayit Yehudi) and Aaron Leibowitz (Yerushalmim) – say they were not informed in advance about the decision. For the moment, it seems that Barkat’s decision is a fait accompli.
Unless the protest reaches a degree that will force changes, the parents’ association, the Harel school’s parents’ association, the non-haredi representatives on city council and the Yeru-Shalem Forum for a pluralist city are standing staunchly behind the parents (of the Harel schoolchildren).
“It’s not that we hate haredim or that we are not capable of understanding their needs or that we lack any sense of hospitality,” explains Hagit Hacohen- Wolf, former president of the Harel parents’ association and today president of the non-haredi section oft he Ramot local council. “We have had too many bad experiences, so we are suspicious. We are fearful that an interim solution might become a permanent one at our expense.”
A municipality spokesman responds, “There is no change in the status of the Harel school. Mayor Barkat met the parents and has renewed his pledge to ensure the development of this school. We are talking about a maximum period of two years until the additional wing for Ohel Rahel additional wing is built and ready.”