Rights, not favors

Strategies and tactics to achieve education equality for Israelis of Ethiopian descent must be adapted according to time and place.

Education rights for Ethiopians  (photo credit: Tebeka)
Education rights for Ethiopians
(photo credit: Tebeka)
IN 2002, THE PARENTS OF AN ISRAELI-BORN SECOND-grader in Hadera were informed that that their son had not been accepted to the school his parents had chosen for him. The 25 percent quota for pupils of Ethiopian origin had already been filled, officials explained.
Education, especially in childhood, plays a key role in facilitating integration into society. But not all Israeli children, and especially not all children of Ethiopian descent, have equal access to the education that will enable them to become free, productive and equal citizens in their future.
While Israelis of Ethiopian origin are equal under the law and entitled to the same rights as any other citizen, it is painfully clear that this mere legal equality is insufficient to provide them with full equality in society. Entitlement to equal rights can guarantee equality for all only if society offers equal opportunity to all. Sadly, that is not the case in Israel quite yet.
Israeli society does not offer an equal starting point for all of its citizens. This is an ethnically and nationally diverse country, and the many groups that make up the society start out with varied cultural understandings and develop in different socioeconomic environments.
Our differences sometimes result in misunderstandings; too often leading to prejudice and discrimination.
The school system offers numerous examples of such prejudice and discrimination. Some schools, like a kindergarten in Beersheba and a primary school in Petah Tikva, separate the children of Ethiopian origin from their peers.
Other schools, it was recently discovered in Rishon Lezion, have asked their teachers to downscale the grades of the pupils of Ethiopian origin so that no more than 20 percent of them will pass on to high school. Others yet, like certain schools in Petah Tikva, take advantage of the generous funding allocated to educational enrichment programs for children of Ethiopian origin and concentrate all of them into ghetto-like schools. Indeed, in the Nir Etzion school, a single non-Ethiopian Israeli pupil remains registered.
All of these schools violate the letter and the spirit of equality legislation.
It is thus obvious that being equal before the law is not enough – we must tailor our legislation to meet the needs of different groups, enact policies and, most importantly, enforce them.
STRATEGIES AND TACTICS TO ACHIEVE EQUALITY must be adapted according to time and place. In 2002, an NGO called Tebeka – Advocacy for Equality and Justice for Ethiopian Israelis petitioned the High Court of Justice to cancel the school quota system. The petition was granted, but that victory was only the first step. Several years later, realizing that discriminatory policies were still in effect in many schools, the organization once again petitioned the High Court of Justice, which then ruled that it is unlawful for schools that are funded or partially funded by the public to discriminate against children from different backgrounds.
Today, Tebeka’s efforts are geared towards ensuring that parents of Ethiopian origin benefit from the same freedom of choice as any other parents when it comes to choosing the schools to which they wish to send their children.
Affirmative action could provide another way to tailoring policies in order to level the playing fields. Some students of Ethiopian origin still may not score as high in standardized testing as other students but, given the opportunity and the extra push that affirmative action would provide, they would succeed like everyone else. And each professional who succeeds blazes the trail for more young Ethiopians to aspire to fulfill their inherent potential and innate talent.
Tebeka is also calling on the Ministry of Education to open registration for children of Ethiopian origin whose parents wish to send them to schools outside of their district. Furthermore, Tebeka is asking that all funding bodies, whether public or philanthropic, maintain their investment in school children of Ethiopian origin, so that the special allotment “goes with” the child to whichever school he or she attends.
Provided that the Education Ministry does its part to enforce implementation, these policies will enable children of different backgrounds to learn together; facilitating the integration enrichment of all children. These policies need not be in place forever – they are necessary for only as long as it takes for the schools to realize the value in integrating and in investing equally in all children.
Today, 20 years after more than 14,000 Ethiopian Jews returned to their homeland in a single operation, the community is at a turning point. It comprises large numbers of Israeli-born Sabras who are increasingly qualified, motivated and professional, but still need an open door or a helping hand to reach their full potential. Not because of their abilities – they earned their degrees – but because society is too often reluctant to include them. ✡
Julie Ariella Wyler, a ROI Community member, made aliya from Switzerland in 2009 and works at Tebeka.