MKs line up behind Ethiopian student issue

Petah Tikva pupils' plight propels parliamentary power play.

MK Shlomo Molla 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
MK Shlomo Molla 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
As lawmakers search for headlines amid the deadly political silence of the summer recess, Ethiopian pupils' search for places in Petah Tikva schools emerged as the push-button issue on Monday, with MKs taking turns speaking in more and more strident terms during the hourslong Education Committee meeting discussing the topic. Both individual legislators and entire Knesset factions discovered that the topic might pay political dividends, and parties and ideological allies found themselves rent asunder during Monday's grandstanding. The most salient split came within Kadima, where MK Shlomo Molla - the house's sole Ethiopian member - faced off against party colleague MK Ronit Tirosh, the architect of Sunday's failed plan to resolve the crisis in Petah Tikva. The party line adopted by Kadima chairwoman Tzipi Livni - who was present at both the small protest held before the committee hearing as well as for the first half of the meeting itself - is closer to that of Molla than that of Tirosh. There is little love lost between Livni and Tirosh, the former director-general of the Education Ministry, who was one of the lawmakers most closely identified with Livni's rival for the Kadima leadership, MK Shaul Mofaz. But Livni was at pains on Monday to emphasize that her newfound, enthusiastic support for the well-being of Ethiopian immigrant students was anything but politically motivated. "When I heard Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar say that he intends to act, I took a principled decision not to turn the topic over to the political playing-field," Livni said during the committee meeting. "The role of the opposition is not just to fight against the government, but also to fight for what is right - and if the government is doing the right thing, we must support it." Earlier this week, Mofaz also emphasized his support for the Ethiopian pupils, during an Israel Radio interview in which he revealed that he has for years worked behind the scenes, together with his wife, to aid immigration absorption efforts. In the Likud as well, even the usually-obstreperous freshman MKs were unanimous in their support for Sa'ar's draconian threats against the three Petah Tikva schools that had been accused of refusing to accept students of Ethiopian origin. MKs Tzipi Hotovely and Carmel Shama both complimented the minister's attempts. On the national religious front, however, the fight - as in Kadima - pitted lawmakers usually seen as natural allies against one another. MK Michael Ben-Ari (National Union) blasted racism against students while defending recognized non-official schools' rights to screen students before entry and to block applicants who do not fit in with the school's ideology. Meanwhile, MK Uri Orbach and Education Committee Chairman MK Zevulun Orlev, both from Habayit Hayehudi, said in strident terms that admitting the pupils was part of the schools' duty to Zionism, and that absorbing immigrant students was a privilege and not a burden. Shas - which runs one of the three schools in question - has been working within the Ethiopian community for years, and spokesman Ro'i Nachmanovich emphasized on Monday that the debate surrounding the Petah Tikva schools was not reviewed for its political relevance but on its halachic merits by Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar. In Shas, Nachmanovich pointed out, Ethiopian immigrants have been included for years. In the last Knesset, MK Mazor Bayana became the first Ethiopian representative from Shas to the parliament, and he is the next candidate on the party's candidates list, ready to replace any Shas lawmaker who resigns. Furthermore, within Shas institutions, said Nachmanovich, "there are a number of Ethiopian rabbis who are teachers, both for the Ethiopian community itself as well as for the community as a whole." "I'm very happy to see such political mobilization on this subject," Molla said. "Apparently politicians finally realized that this is a situation that needs to be discussed. And maybe my presence contributed to it. Now people see that there is a real representative of the community who talks about topics beyond initial absorption."