Knesset to Haifa: Let parents strike [p. 3]

The Knesset's Education, Sport and Culture Committee, chaired by MK Michael Melchior (Labor), called on the Haifa Municipality and the Education Ministry Monday to stop its legal action against the parents of 55 students from the country's only democratic Arab School for refusing to send their children to lessons since the start of the academic year. According to Mai Haddad, one of the striking parents, all of those refusing to send their children to the city council's designated school, were issued with a summons to appear before Haifa Magistrate's Court on December 6. "This is not an easy situation for us," the mother of three told The Jerusalem Post on Monday. "We all have jobs and reputations to defend and if we are convicted, we will end up with criminal records." The parents are angry over the municipality's decision to transfer the location of the school to a building they feel is unsuitable and over the sudden dismissal of Hiwar's founding principal, Muna Mady. "We had a school with parental involvement and suddenly they took that involvement away," continued Haddad. Following the Knesset committee meeting Monday, Dr. Suhail Assad, head of the Hiwar charity that supports the school, said that the parents were encouraged by Melchior's summary of the situation. "However," he said, "there is still a lack of trust and belief by us that the Haifa Municipality will follow these suggestions." "It is clear that this is a personal matter by [Haifa Mayor] Yona Yahav," said Haddad. "[Yahav] refuses to talk to any of the parents and just wants us to send the children to school under his terms. He will not negotiate; his policy is to frighten us in the old fashioned way - to make parents scared." Haifa Municipality spokesman Roni Grossman responded to Haddad's claims by saying that the subject is extremely personal to the mayor because he has put so much effort into building this school and has spent upwards of NIS 5.5 million restoring a building for it. Regarding the summons, Grossman emphasized that it was not in the municipality's hands, but that according to the law, parents who do not send their children to school must either receive permission from the Education Ministry to enroll their children into a private school or must be brought up on criminal charges. "This has no relation to the current battle; what they have done is against the law," he said, adding that as far as the Haifa Municipality is concerned, the Hiwar School is active - even though there are currently only 15 students in attendance. At today's meeting, Melchior concluded that the summons did not provide a positive backdrop to continue discussions so that both sides could find an acceptable and quick solution to the matter. He also said that the committee would do all it could to keep the Hiwar School government-run. The committee appointed MKs Haim Amsalem (Shas) and Jamal Zahalka (National Democratic Assembly) to look into the matter and present recommendations within two weeks. The Hiwar School was started in 2004 by parents who had been searching for a more flexible environment that would encourage art, drama and creative thinking. Until this academic year, it was housed in a temporary location and the parents had been involved in essential decisions of the school. Just prior to the start of the new academic year, parents were informed that their principal had been replaced and that they would be moving to another temporary location until their permanent building was complete. Haddad said that both the temporary location and the permanent building slated for the school were unsuitable. Currently, the children are learning in an ad hoc private framework set up by the striking parents in September. Despite continual requests by the Haifa Municipality and the Education Ministry for parents to return their children to school, the boycott continues. "[Yahav] does not realize that he is dealing with a very determined group of parents who are willing to fight all the way," said Haddad. "We have our lawyers and will continue on." "We call on all parents who have broken the law to return their children to school," responded Grossman, who said the municipality had still not received the suggestions of Melchior's committee. Idat Orsan, supervisor for the Education Ministry in Haifa, told the committee that the ministry had originally been against the establishment of the school because, she said, there were enough choices available. "Since it opened, however, the ministry has given the school its full support, she said. "At the beginning of September, we reached an agreement with the parents on all the issues raised, except for the matter of the building," said Orsan. Melchior said the parents were striking only because they cared about providing their children with a democratic learning environment. "The Ministry of Education and the Haifa Municipality, instead of embracing this initiative, are making their path more difficult," he said.