The trouble with pluralism

After breaking away from the Amit network, the Dror School faces closure.

amit dror school girls (photo credit: Courtesy)
amit dror school girls
(photo credit: Courtesy)
Deputy Mayor Shmuel Shkedi, head of the National Religious Party list, is not the most talkative member of the city council. This is one of the reasons why his recent speech at its most recent meeting - which lasted for almost half an hour - was so unusual. The issue that brought Shkedi out of his usual taciturn state was the decision of the Education Department (his portfolio at the city council) to close the Dror School. This decision has already led to the creation of a new coalition: Parents from the school, which is religious, pluralist and Zionist, along with city council opposition member Nir Barkat, who usually represents secular residents, against the Education Department and the municipality. The issue of Dror sounds more like a remake of the famous Japanese movie Rashomon than a municipal issue, as the two sides do not agree on anything - the facts and figures, agreements, decisions, not even the number of students attending the school. The only point that is accepted is the reason behind the actual controversy: Dror, a member of the Amit network of religious schools, has been removed from that framework. The reason behind this decision remains rather elusive, but is apparently financial. Dror was not and is still not a municipal school, it is private - and hence costly - like almost all modern Orthodox schools in the city. Some of the parents suddenly realized that the situation could turn out to be a wonderful opportunity to turn Amit into a public school, and thus present a pluralistic alternative to religious Zionist education in the city, which has become much closer to the "hardal" (haredi/religious Zionist) movement than before. The result was not what the parents had hoped for: In his unusually long speech at the city council meeting, Shkedi, who claimed that the fate of the school and its students is very important to him, gave an exhausting list of the different doors on which he and Manhi (Jerusalem Education Administration) head Benzi Nemet, along with the parents, knocked, to no avail. He approached the ORT network, the Hartman school, an anonymous potential benefactor and the Re'ut school (previously part of Dror, but split some years ago), but "it just didn't work," he concluded. "I was ready to try anything to save and protect this wonderful community and to support the school, the students and their parents," added Shkedi. "It just didn't work out, namely because the number of students enrolled in the school is too low. It is impossible, just impossible to work it out according to the Education Ministry rules." For the parents, who created an ad-hoc action committee, things sound a little different: "The numbers Shkedi and Manhi are talking about are just not true," said Florence Sullam, a member of the committee. "We have different numbers, and although Dror has always been a small community, we have the names of 242 students, and we know there are more than 20 additional students who wanted to register, which brings us closer to 260 overall." City council member Barkat, who joined the parents in their efforts to save their school, confirmed that to his knowledge, the parents' figures are more accurate. But Barkat was more concerned by the fact that according to his findings, the Education Department of the municipality handed false figures to Education Minister Yuli Tamir. After a recent meeting with Tamir, Barkat declared that he was astonished to find out that she was convinced that there was no way Dror could go on being an independent school or be included in the municipal network due to low enrollment. "I don't understand on what basis Manhi supplied those figures indicating a drop in the number of registered students," said Barkat. "I therefore have requested that the municipality implement what has been agreed upon earlier with the parents, namely that Dror become a municipal school instead of closing down." According to Sullam and Yael Lehmen, of the parents' association, Manhi promised from the beginning that Dror wouldn't be closed and "what is going on now is just a breaking of an agreement by the municipality and the Education Department, which prefer to get rid of the only pluralistic, humanist religious school still existing in this city." Sullam added that the idea to transfer Dror to the Hartman school, one of the proposed solutions, is unacceptable to Dror parents: "We are a pluralistic community; although it is a religious school, we accept students from religious, traditional and even secular families who are interested in a Jewish approach to their children's education. This is totally in opposition with the Hartman attitude, which requires students to be from a religious background and applies a gender separation, while we insist on boys and girls learning together." Sullam and Lehman also pointed out that the Dror philosophy has always been to accept children of all academic levels, stressing that education does not have to be strictly connected with competition and achievement, "exactly the opposite of the Hartman high school attitude." "We cannot rely on a promise that we will reach an acceptable compromise," added Sullam. "We are concerned that after a while, our students would be dropped from Hartman, if they do not adapt themselves to the competitive attitude, and then what? "This is a struggle not only for our students, but also for the fabric of Jerusalem society. We see with sadness how Jerusalem is becoming a city of ghettos, in which every sector is disconnected from the others and afraid to open up and welcome some changes. The model set by Dror proves that it can be different, and it would be a shame to let that fade away." In response to In Jerusalem's request for an explanation regarding the discrepancy between Manhi's figures and those provided by the parents, municipal spokesman Gidi Shmerling said: "The Dror School is not a municipal institution but a recognized institution owned by the Amit network, which decided to end the school's activity. Manhi is holding talks with the school's management and the parents to reach a reasonable arrangement to continue the pupils' studies."