“Everyone in my child’s school is black,” said migrant parent Teklab Habteslasie Haile, a father of three, who lives in Tel Aviv’s Shapira neighborhood.
It’s not a situation that is likely to change any time soon, as he expects his children will remain among the thousands of Israeli-born children of migrants who attend segregated schools in South Tel Aviv.
The Tel Aviv Municipality launched a pilot program that allows 96 of those Israeli-born first graders to study in schools throughout the city.
The program was initiated as the Supreme Court adjudicates a petition filed by 700 parents, including Haile, in conjunction with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel. For parents like Haile, the pilot program feels almost meaningless given that there are over 2,200 children born to migrant parents in four segregated elementary schools.
“This is a disrespect to our community,” Haile said. “Why is our kids’ education treated like a game?”
As part of the ministry’s program, the pilot will run for two years and data will be collected for a study to determine the program’s effectiveness.
The court has ordered the ministry to provide a more detailed description of the program before August 1 and again in October regarding the actual registration of the 96 first-graders in Tel Aviv schools.
The petition, officially submitted in August 2021 by a group of hundreds of Tel Aviv residents, was rejected by the district court last year, but then was appealed by the parents and made its way to the Supreme Court.
“The High Court’s decision is an acknowledgment that the legal framework of the district court was wrong.” Haran Reichman, one of two attorneys representing the parents, told The Jerusalem Post. “We now know this is a matter of policy, not law.”
The Education Ministry proposed the pilot ahead of a June 12 court date in hopes of avoiding the hearing, but the petitioners rejected the program and the session convened as scheduled.
During the hearing, the judges accepted the ministry’s proposal as they continued to adjudicate on whether the schools should be desegregated.
Reichman, like Haile, expressed frustration at the small scale of the pilot program as well as the vagueness of its details. He also pointed out that lawsuits against similar cases of school segregation have been successful in the past, such as in Kiryat Gat and Netanya.
Segregated schooling for Israeli asylum seekers in Tel Aviv
Tel Aviv is home to approximately 33,500 asylum seekers predominately from Sudan and Eritrea, according to the Tel Aviv Municipality. Most of them live in the South Tel Aviv neighborhoods of Hatikva, Shapira, and Neve Sha’anan.
Their children are assigned to attend one of four elementary schools in the area: HaYarden, Keshet, Gvanim, and Bialik Rogozin, which also operates as a high school.
Haile, whose nine-year-old son attends Keshet school in Neve Sha’anan, became concerned when he found out his child could not read or write Hebrew letters.
“Our children were born in Israeli hospitals, it’s painful as a parent to watch your child not receive the same quality education as the other kids,” he said.
After the pilot plan was announced, parents and organizers from the Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel (ASSAF) and the Garden Library held meetings to discuss the impact of the decision, with many parents voicing frustration about the decision. “Our kids are not guinea pigs,” one parent said in response to the proposal being called a “pilot.”
“There was a lot of despair in the room,” Orly-Levinson Sela, ASSAF’s public advocacy director said. “Nobody needs an experiment to know that segregation is bad.”
Tedros Aregai, a local community activist, was born in Eritrea and spent time in Sudan before crossing the Sinai Peninsula to enter Israel in 2011. Since his arrival, he’s spent his spare time organizing community parents and fighting for an integrated school system.
“We’re working day to night in survival mode for our families, but our kids’ education is worth fighting for,” he said. “This is an advanced, megacity and our children who are born here do not deserve an education that is less. We’re not looking for a pilot program.”
In the past, the Tel Aviv municipality has rejected claims of segregation, stating that the makeup of schools was due to registration regulations based on where residents live.
But parents have said this isn’t the case, which the Supreme Court’s decision to recognize the school’s segregation confirms. Teklab lives a couple of streets down from an Israeli-Jewish family, but their children go to different schools. According to Aregai, there have been children of refugees who commute from the central Tel Aviv neighborhood of Hatikva in order to attend Keshet in south Tel Aviv.
For many migrant families, their status in Israel is uncertain as they wait for the government to process asylum requests.
In 2018, the Israeli government announced that asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea who had not submitted applications for asylum, or whose applications had been denied, were candidates for forcible absorption into Uganda or Rwanda. But following heavy pressure against the deportation plan, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu revealed that Rwanda had not agreed to accept the migrants, and Uganda withdrew from the agreement shortly after.
According to Reichman, the Education Ministry’s motive to keep the schools segregated may be to prepare children of migrants for eventual deportation.
“It’s something we’re very fearful about,” he said. The municipality has refused to say that their goal is to desegregate, and 96 children is far too few. It doesn’t make sense.”
Haile said that his son has told him about instances of people shouting “go back to Africa” and “You don’t belong here” from outside the school gates. One teacher told his son that he would be returning to Africa once he becomes an adult.
“I had to leave home for safety reasons, and I knew that Israeli people have suffered an exile in the past. I thought they would treat us better here,” Haile said.
Michal Schendar, a community organizer at the Garden Library who has worked alongside the migrant community, echoed these sentiments.
“Israel was established by refugees, we are a part of the Western world now. It should be our obligation to aid refugees that are in our country.”
A spokesperson for the mayor’s office said that they could not comment due to the ongoing legal proceedings. For now, the ministry has prepared for the 96 first graders to be integrated into 10-15 schools across North and Central Tel Aviv.
“We have not lost sight of the fact that the pilot does not solve the problem that has arisen over the years,” the court said in its ruling. “But we hope that it is a first step in the willingness of the respondents to deal practically with the issue.”