Fighting for the little guys

Outgoing parents’ association president Eti Binyamin sums up two decades of work.

Fighting for the little guys_521 (photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Fighting for the little guys_521
(photo credit: Marc Israel Sellem)
Eti Binyamin, the outgoing president of the Jerusalem Parents’ Association, takes great pride in presenting herself as a thorn in the side of the system – be it the Education Ministry, the municipality’s education administration or, more recently, the mayor of Jerusalem. But as she said two weeks ago at the ceremony marking the end her of her tenure, she feels that her best achievement has been “to be there for any little and lonely child lost in the huge and unfriendly system.”
According to Binyamin, a parents’ association is a group of parents who dare to believe that the establishment – the ministry, the local education administration, even the teachers – is not obviously, or at least not always, aware of or focused on the children’s best interests.
“It’s not that we don’t trust [these institutions], it’s just that we believe that it is still our responsibility to look after our children’s rights, even when they are at school,” she adds in an interview with In Jerusalem with a sardonic smile. Children’s rights, pupils’ rights, parents’ rights – all of this, she believes, is an ongoing struggle with a powerful system.
She believes that children love to learn – “they just dislike schools.” As she explained at the ceremony, she adds that it is the parents’ duty to see that their children keep their rights and are not disregarded.
Basically she strongly recommends that parents be vigilant, even at the risk of annoying the system and its representatives. And that is exactly what she did during her mandate, to the point of ending up in court on charges of defamation after criticizing Mayor Nir Barkat. She lost her case – the court ordered her organization to pay a fine of NIS 40,000 – but she has remained adamant in believing that schoolchildren are subject to what she calls “cynical political misuse,” something she urges her successor and all parents never to underestimate.
BINYAMIN headed the Jerusalem parents’ association for the last 20 years, working under three mayors and four successive directors of the local education administration. She would never admit to tiring of her mission, but does say she feels she gave enough of her life to the parents of the city, and since her own children have grown up and are no longer under the local education administration, this was a perfect time to quit.
Regarding the blow she suffered when the Jerusalem District Court ruled in favor of the mayor and condemned her for accusing him of having used fourth- and fifth-grade pupils for his political campaign, she says only that she respects the judges’ ruling, but is still convinced she did the right thing and rejects any attempt to link the incident to her decision to resign.
Eti Binyamin (Marc Israel Sellem)Eti Binyamin (Marc Israel Sellem)
However, when interviewed, the old combative spirit is still there, together with more than a little concern for the future, as if she feels that once she’s gone, things might become too peaceful.
Born in February 1962, she is the mother of four children and recently became a grandmother. She loves to remind interlocutors that she comes from 11 generations of Jerusalem residents and is the heir, through her late grandfather Itzhak Abud-Levy, to a generation of builders whose work included Hadassah University Medical Center in Ein Kerem, the Shaare Zedek Medical Center and the first plaza built around the Western Wall after the Six Day War. Her father is a direct descendant of the Dilharosa family, which was expelled from Spain in 1492 and has been established in the Holy City ever since.
“Jerusalem is in my veins, in my soul, I am totally dedicated to this city and its residents, and thus for me, it was only natural that I would dedicate my time to a public cause,” she says.
She first became involved in parents’ issues when her eldest daughter entered first grade at the Maimon religious school.
“The school administration was asked to provide a few classrooms for a yeshiva that was located nearby,” she recalls. “I was president of the school’s parents’ association, and to say that we didn’t like the decision would be an understatement. I consulted my partners in the association, and we all decided to fight against it; we presented a petition to the High Court of Justice, which we won.”
From there on, she adds, the path was clear, and she began a long career of commitment to the parents’ cause. At the beginning of every school year, she was asked to head the parents’ association, a job she always accepted.
BUT THIS path was not always a smooth one. She states bluntly that she and her fellow association members have never had confidence in the education administration. Children get lost in the system, she says, and at the same time, they are not encouraged to express their feelings or requests.
“It is very easy to undermine a child’s self-confidence, so the parents have the obligation to act as the watchdogs of the system, and that’s what the parents’ association is doing for them.”
The association works alongside and, if necessary, against, any administration that deals with schoolage children. Besides the schools themselves, that includes the municipality’s education administration, the holder of the city council’s education portfolio, the education minister and his general manager, the Knesset Education Committee – and last but not least, the parents.
Binyamin admits that sometimes her association had to confront the parents, and not only work with them. She points out that naturally, most of the presidents of the local associations are among the “most powerful and well-to-do parents,” and as such she has often found herself in the awkward position of having to fight both the system and some of the parents.
For example, when principals imposed fees for extra activities, some parents who had the means would agree to pay, even though other parents could not afford to. Binyamin says she always instructed parents not to agree to these payments, which are not required by law.
“As a result, in too many cases, I had to fight against principals who wouldn’t hesitate to tell the class that this or that activity was canceled because that or this boy or girl hadn’t paid for it, and against the members of my association who agreed to pay.”
She adds that the agony of a child exposed to his classmates’ anger after being singled out as responsible for an activity’s cancellation still occurs too often, and that it is “enough to prevent me from sleeping at night.”
ASKED IF promoting a better education than the standard one provided by law is parents’ main motive for being active in such associations, she smiles and says things are much more complicated.
“Of course, many are only driven by concern for the best education available for their children,” she says. “But there are others who see in such activity a threshold for political activity, since the association enables them to establish contacts with the press, to be exposed to the greater public and thus to gain some advantages.”
On another level, she says, it is not that the people in charge of the education administration have bad intentions toward the children, but that the system is so huge and complex that too often children become the last issue on their agendas. There are reforms, new programs, new goals to be achieved, new technologies introduced.
“The education administration is so busy that even when we manage to bring to their attention the specific needs of one child, it takes such a long time to solve his problem, and there are also some cases of refusal to listen to the individual cases,” she explains.
She recalls many cases of misplacement in schools, in opposition to the parents’ and the children’s requests, “just because it fits the system’s needs and priorities.”
Strangely enough, despite the prevalence of such situations, she did not support the mayor’s decision to abolish the catchment areas for junior high and high schools.
“This decision is good on paper,” she says with renewed energy. “In reality, what happened is exactly what I warned about since the beginning of the mayor’s campaign in favor of it – that the strong schools would be the only ones to benefit from it.”
As a result, she explains, the best students moved to the best schools, leaving less advanced students behind in less privileged schools.
“I am not against excellence,” she stresses, “but I am against any policy that looks at the system without taking care of the interest of each child. That’s our task, we the parents, because someone has to do that job.”
Fighting for the little guy (Marc Israel Sellem)Fighting for the little guy (Marc Israel Sellem)
ONE OF her achievements is the decision to post guards at each educational institution in the city, despite many attempts by the Education and Public Security ministries to remove them following a decrease in terror attacks.
“It is quite normal for a system to focus on its interests, and I believe that our task, as parents, is to take care of our children’s security and well-being, without bothering too much about budgetary considerations – after all, we’re talking about our children’s lives.”
An additional achievement, in her eyes, is that after 20 years under her leadership, Jerusalem parents have learned that the system can make mistakes and shouldn’t be trusted blindly.
Parents’ payments, which she says were her highest priority, have finally come to the Knesset’s attention. MK Zevulun Orlev (Habayit Hayehudi), a former Education Ministry director-general, two years ago managed to advance a bill that reduced and fixed the level of parents’ payments and ended what she doesn’t hesitate to call “the dictatorship of some principals” who requested greater participation, “even when it was clear that some parents just couldn’t afford it.” Today, there is a fixed and clear tariff, and no one can demand more payments.
Yet on one issue, Binyamin admits she failed. She has tried for years to end student trips to Poland and the Nazi death camps, but has not succeeded, “first of all because there was not even one MK or minister who had the guts to oppose it openly.”
To this day, she is convinced that these trips do not lead to a better understanding of the Jewish people’s tragedy, that too often it raises ultra-nationalist feelings among the youth participating, and above all, that it highlights the gap between rich and underprivileged students.
“Those who cannot afford the high cost of these trips do not participate, and I wonder what kind of educational value there is in this situation. That one has to be rich in order to learn about our people’s history? Can’t we find better ways to learn about the Holocaust here?” The key to canceling these trips, she says, was and still is in the leaders’ hands – namely the MKs and the education minister – “yet no one there had the courage to speak loud and clear, although I am convinced that some of them agreed with me. But that topic is a kind of taboo; no one dares touch it, and it’s a pity.”
SOMETIME NEAR the end of mayor Uri Lupolianski’s term in 2008, a rift opened between Binyamin and then-city council opposition leader Barkat.
Barkat, whose first involvement with city affairs was through educational issues, was, like other members of the opposition, against the local education administration’s decision not to include children with special needs (autism in this case) in Ramat Shlomo’s Yad Hamoreh school. Parents of those children and of the “healthy” pupils came to a city council meeting on the subject. Barkat was not the only city council member who encouraged the parents to attend the meeting with their children – the three Meretz members were active on this, too – but it was clear that he was heavily involved.
Binyamin, who wasn’t particularly opposed to the inclusive project, was nevertheless bothered by the city councillors’ decision to bring the children to city hall. In an interview a few days later, in which she mentioned only Barkat (apparently because he was opposition leader), she called the move “a political misuse of children.” Barkat took her to court, but despite losing the case, she is still convinced she was right in denouncing the decision.
She adds that while she found in Lupolianski a dedicated listener to her requests regarding schoolchildren’s needs, she cannot say the same about the present mayor.
In addition, she calls Barkat’s continued visits to 11th- and 12th-grade classes to lecture on leadership “a political move, which I believe shouldn’t exist in schools.” She rejected a proposal to apologize, stating that “she would apologize if she’d been convinced she did wrong, which is not the case.”
In response, a City Hall spokesman said there was “no basis” to Binyamin’s claims that Barkat was visiting schools for political benefit.
“Barkat visits several schools every week and has visited each school more than once, something that is an important part of his job as holder of the education portfolio,” said the spokesman.
Regarding the mayor’s lawsuit against Binyamin, the spokesman added: “The district court rejected parents’ association head Eti Binyamin’s appeal and upheld the decision of the magistrate’s court, which ruled that she defamed Barkat. The court ruled that she had to pay NIS 5,000 for costs for the appeal, in addition to the damages of NIS 35,000 and NIS 11,000 in costs for the magistrate’s court suit.”
Nonetheless, at the ceremony marking the end of her mandate, Binyamin emphasized that she would do it all over again the same way if she had to: “I wish people would remember me as the person who never forgot that among thousands of pupils, there is always one more fragile, smaller than the others, who cannot beat the system unless someone helps him. I wanted to be that person.”