Over 60,000 attend Tel Aviv rally in support of teachers

Efforts to end teachers strike last week fail, as SSTO reps skip meeting with Finance Ministry in bid to pressure PM to intervene.

A mass rally in support of the striking teachers took place in Rabin Square in Tel Aviv on Saturday night, with at least 60,000 people in attendance. "All these people who support the struggle are in favor of education," Chairman of the SSTO Ran Erez said at the beginning of the rally. "With every social struggle in Israel, be it single-parent mothers, bread rallies, or others, people struggle alone and nobody succeeds," Erez continued. "We are together! We are struggling together for the welfare of the state." "Education is closing gaps, education is fighting violence, and staying away from alcoholism and all the bad things that are happening to the state," Erez said. "That is our struggle. It's a shame that the government doesn't understand that. We are not against them, we are for them, and we want to tell them: The land is shaking. This stormy mountain is erupting." Participation in the rally was diverse, with thousands of teachers, students, parents, and grandparents holding signs baring the slogans, "No education, no future," and "Cheapening education will cost enormously." Naomi Besser, an officer of student organization in Yafo, said the organization brought 15 busloads of students to the rally. "We love our teachers, and we can make education work for all of Israel if all sides cooperate," Besser said. The large show of support comes as the standoff between the Secondary School Teachers' Organization (SSTO) and the government continued into its sixth week. Before the rally began, Education Minister Yuli Tamir said that she stands firm on her position to implement education reforms. "If the process fails, it will be my failure and I will pay the price," Tamir said during an appearance in Holon. She added that it was important to focus on a change to the system, rather than just popular steps. "There are people who think that the value of a politician is in the power of their scream, but that's not me. I got the educational system more than any of those 'table turners' - more than 10 billion shekels." Earlier on Saturday, MK Ofir Paz-Pines (Labor) called on Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik to impose parliamentary sanctions on the government for letting the strike last as long as it has, Army Radio reported. According to the report, Paz-Pines suggested that Itzik delay discussions on new bills - including the 2008 budget and the Economic Arrangement's Law - in order to pressure the government to intervene and end the strike. Efforts to end the shutdown produced no results last week as representatives from the SSTO, led by chairman Ran Erez, gathered at the PMO instead of attending a meeting with the Finance Ministry that was scheduled to take place in Airport City on Friday. The prime minister refused to meet with the teachers. After waiting in vain for the teachers' representatives in Airport City, Finance Ministry Director-General Yarom Ariav said that the SSTO had turned the struggle itself into its primary goal. "We have come today to conduct professional negotiations as we agreed yesterday but we didn't find our partners on the other side," added a disgruntled Ariav. Referring to the mass rally in slated for Saturday, Ariav went on to say that the teachers were "busy arranging demonstrations instead of trying to resolve the crisis," Army Radio reported. Olmert also urged the striking teachers to conclude negotiations with the government ministries and end the shutdown. In a letter published by Yediot Aharonot on Friday, Olmert pledged to answer several of the requests made by teachers in recent weeks. "I am committed to giving a dramatic pay rise of between 26 and 34 percent to SSTO members, I am committed to reducing class sizes, we will increase the number of hours in the education establishment and we will raise the standards of teachers and principals," wrote Olmert. Regarding Saturday's rally, the prime minister said: "If I could, I would come and speak to you in Rabin Square, but I wasn't invited to the demonstration and I don't want to turn your event into a taunting session."