Shomron: Give Us Ethiopian Kids

The struggle in Petah Tikva over where to enroll 50 young immigrants in school has revealed deeper issues involved in immigrant absorption.

Maayana Miskin and Gil Ronen ,

Ethiopian-Israeli kids protest in Petah Tikva
Ethiopian-Israeli kids protest in Petah Tikva
Israel news photo: Flash 90

The Shomron (Samaria) Regional Council and the community of Peduel offered Friday to absorb Ethiopian-Jewish children from Petach Tikva in their schools. The offer is an attempt to resolve an emotional dispute between Petach Tikva schools and government officials regarding the fate of the students.

Shomron Regional Council Head Gershon Mesika explained: “We in the Shomron absorbed quite a few families of Ethiopian immigrants in the past few years and we are proud of this. We will be very happy to absorb the students from the Ethiopian community who, like the resettlers of Judea and Samaria, risked their lives in making Aliyah from Ethiopia to Israel. The residents of Shomron are always volunteering for national and social assignments and we will be glad to do so for this pleasant mission too,” Mesika said.

"In the communities of Peduel and Yakir,” Mesika added, “there are religious state schools that – like all of the Shomron's educational institutions – are among the best in Israel, from an educational-professional point of view and from a Torah point of view. In addition, the Shomron communities are but 'a touch away' from central Israel. Peduel and Yakir are less than 15 minutes' drive from Petach Tikva,” he noted.

Educator and former Bnei Akiva official Yonah Goodman, who is a spokesman for Peduel, said: “we are ready to absorb the Ethiopian-immigrant pupils in the community's school, and we will be happy and proud if it does indeed happen. I hope that the Ministry of Education consents to our offer.”

Kids have Nowhere to go
Emotions are running high in Petach Tikva over the question of where 50 young schoolchildren from Ethiopia should learn during the coming school year. With just days to go before the year begins, the children have been left with nowhere to go.

The children, along with their families, underwent a formal conversion to Judaism (giyur l'chumra) as part of their aliyah (immigration) process. As converts, the parents vowed to keep Jewish law, and to send their children to religious schools.

However, the religious schools in Petach Tikva say they are not equipped to deal with the heavy influx of new immigrants, and have refused to accept the would-be students in an attempt to force the city to help them bear the burden of large-scale absorption. Members of the Parent-Teacher Forum in the city's religious Zionist schools say that the state-religious schools, which serve approximately 10 percent of Petah Tikva's children, are being expected to absorb more than 90 percent of the new immigrants – and are not being given the proper resources to do so.

While several dozen soon to be first-grade students from Ethiopia have enrolled in the religious-Zionist schools, dozens of older children were refused admittance.

School officials say the new immigrants are significantly behind their Israeli-born peers in language and math skills, and require extra assistance in order to close the gaps. Officials proposed separate classes for students from Ethiopia, in which students would be taught material that their Israeli counterparts have already covered, but the proposal was rejected by the Education Ministry, which said the separate classes would constitute racial discrimination.

The schools in question are not part of the public school system, but receive state and municipal funding. Their principals insist that as semi-private institutions, they have the right to set criteria for admittance that include academic ability and religious observance, while city officials insist that as institutions that receive public funding, they have the obligation to take part in the absorption of new immigrants.

'Racism, Plain and Simple'
While school officials argued that their stance was based solely on the difficulties of absorbing students with a weak academic background, Ethiopian activists in Petach Tikva and elsewhere accused the schools of using academics as an excuse for racism. The decision not to enlist the Ethiopian-Israeli students is “racism, plain and simple,” said Dani Kassahun, who heads a coalition of Ethiopian-Israeli organizations.

Kassahun called on the Education Ministry and the city of Petah Tikva to use forceful measures to solve the problem. If the schools refuse to accept new immigrants, then the schools should be closed, he said.

The Israeli Association for Ethiopian Jews has turned to Chief Rabbis Shlomo Amar and Yona Metzger, asking them to assist the children. The children and their families underwent a conversion process supervised by Israel's rabbinate, the group noted, asking, “Are these children not good enough to learn in any religious or hareidi school in Petach Tikva?”

Peres, Livni Slam Schools
President Shimon Peres and opposition leader Tzipi Livni have joined those criticizing the schools for their failure to absorb the new pupils. Livni called the schools' actions “unacceptable,” while Peres called on young activists to “go to Petach Tikva and protest.”

"If I were in your place, I'd get on a bus and go straight to Petach Tikva to protest against those who oppose the absorption of Ethiopian students in three local schools,” he told a gathering of young leaders in Kfar Maccabiah on Thursday. The schools' refusal to accept the students is “a disgrace that no Israeli can accept,” he said.

The schools later responded to Peres, and invited the president to come visit on the first day of classes next week, “where he will see that in our schools there are students of Ethiopian origin... From there, we recommend that the honorable president continue on to 40 other schools in Petach Tikva, where he won't see a single immigrant from Ethiopia.”