A basic right

While most pupils went back to school at the beginning of the month, many east Jerusalem children remained at home.

lupolianski tamir 298.88 (photo credit: Jeki Levy/Jerusalem Municiipality)
lupolianski tamir 298.88
(photo credit: Jeki Levy/Jerusalem Municiipality)
t 10 a.m. on September 11, the schoolchildren of Umm Tuba, a neighborhood in east Jerusalem, weren't in their classrooms. That day, their textbooks weren't opened and their lessons never started. Neither the principal nor the parents of these students objected to the children skipping school. In fact, they all spent the morning protesting in front of City Hall. The demand - to build a decent school for the children of the neighborhood. "The school of Umm Tuba is in fact five different buildings situated quite far from one another, and sometimes the teachers or the principal have to drive the students from one location to another, otherwise they will never make it to class on time. Since 1967, not even one school has been built in Umm Tuba," says Abd al-Karim Lafi, the chairman of the east Jerusalem PTA. According to Lafi and the Ir Amim organization (founded in 2004 to promote Israeli-Palestinian coexistence in Jerusalem), the only thing that stands between the children of Umm Tuba and the new school is bureaucracy. "There is available ground for the school, and the owners agreed to sell it to the municipality for a small fraction of its actual cost for the sake of the education of the kids in the neighborhood, but for years now there has been no progress on the subject," says Sarah Kreimer, associate director of Ir Amim. Lafi's last update is that during the next few days there will be another discussion in the municipality on the issue, and hopefully some progress will be made. In the meantime, the kids of Umm Tuba will have to continue running around the remote buildings of their school. "An agreement is expected to be signed in the near future regarding transferral of land to the Jerusalem Municipality for a new school in Umm Tuba," responds City Hall spokesman Gidi Shmerling. This situation is definitely not restricted to Umm Tuba, says Lafi, but is in fact the reality in most neighborhoods in east Jerusalem. The official data recognized by the Education Ministry, the municipality and the High Court says there is a lack of more than 1,000 classrooms in east Jerusalem. The ruling of the High Court requires the ministry and the municipality to provide these classrooms so all children can be enrolled in school and the free education law can be fulfilled. Last year, only new 35 classrooms were built. "This is a very alarming phenomena, since theoretically each year an additional 160 classrooms should be built just to keep up with the six percent annual growth rate in east Jerusalem. Given that there was a shortage of [more than 1,000] classrooms in the first place, the gap will just increase over the years." This year, as in previous years, many parents in east Jerusalem could not enroll their children in municipality schools simply because there was no space available. "The municipality promised us that at least all the kindergarten children and the first graders would be admitted, but in fact, this didn't happen either," says Lafi, who claims many children in east Jerusalem never started school on September 1. At the beginning of September, four letters were sent by Ir Amim with the names of 131 kids who weren't admitted to schools despite the promises made to the population of east Jerusalem. "These are the kids that we know of. Of course, there are many other cases of which we simply are not aware," says Kreimer. So what are parents to do when the municipality can't enroll their offspring? Those who can afford it send their children to private schools - a pricy business, especially when there is more than one child of school age in the family. "There is an article in the free education law that clearly mentions that if the Ministry of Education can't provide the space in a classroom for a child, his parents' expenses for his education in the private sector should be covered by the state. But apparently, this law is not applicable to Arabs," Lafi says. Parents who do not have the financial means for private school enroll their children in Islamic Wakf schools (authority of Islamic endowments), although many say they would prefer their children to attend municipality schools. This year, when the NIS 30 million municipality school was finally built in Sur Bahir , the pace of enrolling in Wakf schools immediately slowed. Parents admit standards are higher in municipality schools than in Wakf schools, but add that even a Wakf school is better than no school at all. Israeli authorities often blame Wakf schools for spreading radical and extremist ideas, but it is these same authorities who push the kids of east Jerusalem to these very schools, instead of providing more municipality schools, claim east Jerusalem parents. As a matter of fact, when it comes to congestion and scarcity of means, the situation in the Wakf of private schools is not much better than in the municipality schools. "The municipality doesn't give building permits to its own schools or to the private schools. As a result, we have as many as 45-50 kids in one classroom, which is certainly a disturbing and alarming fact," says Lafi. "Our schools do not have yards where children can relax during their breaks, we hardly have any labs, libraries or modern equipment. Some classrooms are in fact not classrooms at all, but shelters that were turned into classrooms, or caravans made of tin. Of course, there is no air-conditioning there, so the temperature in the classroom easily reaches 40 degrees," he adds. But this year, the parents say they are determined to put up a serious fight. "We are not ready to give up our rights and the rights of our children for education," Lafi states. "Last year, a PTA in east Jerusalem was initiated, and together with the help of human rights organizations such as Ir Amim and the PTA organization in west Jerusalem, with whom we have an excellent relationship, we will do all that we can so that our kids will get equal opportunities for their futures." Municipal spokesman Shmerling says the lack of classrooms is in large part due to an increase in the Arab population in east Jerusalem. "Establishing schools in Israel is funded by the Education Ministry and the Jerusalem Municipality is deeply concerned by the lack of classrooms in east Jerusalem and in the haredi sector. Manhi [the Jerusalem Education Administration] is acting to build new school buildings in east Jerusalem, in light of the sharp increase in recent years in the number of residents and pupils in the area," he says in a statement to In Jerusalem. "At the beginning of the school year 5767 a new school for girls was inaugurated in Sur bahir and a boys' school is being built. In addition, construction will soon begin on three new buildings and three new schools that have expanded in the past four years. "It is important to note that there has been an increase in the number of Arab residents in Jerusalem, due to political and security developments and the security fence, which naturally increases the number of students. "For the school year there has been an effort to absorb all students who are eligible for kindergarten and first grade, according to the High Court ruling. Children for whom a place in their neighborhood cannot be found are bussed to schools in nearby neighborhoods. "The Jerusalem Municipality is providing temporary school buildings on a needs basis, wither by renting buildings or erecting temporary buildings. In addition there is a second shift at schools."