Only one of the 294 pupils at the Ner Etzion Elementary School in Petah Tikva is not of Ethiopian origin. As a result, the school has become a symbol of the difficulties involved in integrating the Ethiopian community in the city - and now the struggle has become even more acute.
Last week, dozens of parents of children from the school got together to call on the authorities to close down the institution in the next school year and disperse the children among other elementary schools in Petah Tikva. At the meeting, which was organized by activists from the city's Ethiopian community, the parents announced that they would keep their children home from school until a suitable arrangement was worked out.
The struggle is not limited to Ner Etzion, which is part of the state religious stream. They want to see integration with veteran Israelis also in four kindergartens in the city's Yoseftal and Amishav neighborhoods, where the children of Ethiopian origin form the vast majority.
"We don't plan to wait until the Education Ministry gets its act together," says Daniel Oriya, one of the activists who organized the meeting. "We are hoping that all the ghettos in Israel - in Netanya, Lod, Ramle and Ashdod - will join in our struggle so that they will be dismantled."
The struggle is taking place against the backdrop of ongoing discussions on the matter by the Knesset Immigration, Absorption and Diaspora Affairs Committee, headed by Likud MK Danny Danon. The panel recently gave an Education Ministry committee four months to publish its recommendations with regard to the future of 15 schools and kindergartens where there is a concentration of pupils of Ethiopian origin, including Ner Etzion.
Not all of the parents believe that the Ner Etzion school must be disbanded. Among those who support leaving it in its current framework is Amiel Keinan, the father of the one veteran Israeli pupil. Keinan is a teacher himself, at the Rabbi Piron Yeshiva.
Keinan decided to send his son to the school a year ago - a move that many of those in his milieu considered questionable. "Our school system is racist - much more so than than the secular state school system," Keinan says. "We are racists. We are motivated by stigmas."
Keinan and his wife decided that their son should attend Ner Etzion school after they were late in signing him up for a private religious school they had favored.
"After initial doubts, I asked myself: What is the problem?" Keinan explains. "I decided that it was worth looking into. The following day, I went to the school. They showed me their notes and how they monitor the progress of every child every day. This really bowled me over. I have been part of the school system for 22 years but I've never seen anything like it. The Ner Etzion school gets budgets from the Immigrant Absorption Ministry and other sources. The result is tremendous investment in the pupils."
Keinan, who says his son is accepted by the other pupils and has integrated very well, is a member of the school's parents committee, which is against shutting Ner Etzion down.
Parents committee chairman Yoav Telala says he supports bringing children who are not of Ethiopian origin into the school and says that closing it is not an option. Deputy chairman Keinan, on the other hand, says that there should not be integration at the elementary school level, in particular at Ner Etzion, and that this should wait until junior high and high school.
"I believe there is room for a school like this just as it is because the children need to be strengthened with others like them," Keinan says. "I think they must be well prepared for this stage and they must wait until junior high. If we put 10 or 15 Ethiopian children into an integrated class, there will be segregation."
At the start of the past school year, dozens of Ethiopian parents requested that their children be transferred from Ner Etzion to other schools in the city, mainly because they did not want them to be in an all-Ethiopian framework. Most of the requests were turned down by the Petah Tikva municipality.
Currently, the municipality allows Ethiopian parents to send their children to any secular school that they wish in the city; but in order to send them to a state religious school, as most of the parents would like, they need to appear before a municipal committee. City officials say that this is designed to prevent large concentrations of children of Ethiopian origin in the most desired schools, which would be contrary to the aims of integration. The education officials also admit that neither the state religious schools nor the private religious schools are happy about accepting Ethiopian children.
With regard to the demands of the parents and activists that Ner Etzion school be shut down, a spokesperson for the Petah Tikva municipality said: "To our regret, political elements who have set themselves up as representatives of the community are taking advantage of the parents' plight and putting them at the forefront of a struggle to which they are not partner. Moreover, there is no one opinion among the parents about the future of the school."
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