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The semi-private religious schools in Petah Tikva that rejected 24 students of Ethiopian descent two years ago are guilty of illegal ethnic discrimination, even though they are not wholly state-run institutions, the High Court of Justice ruled yesterday.

The court said the authorities should use all the means at their disposal, including cutting government funding, to fight any discrimination they encounter in the schools.

"This is improper discrimination that cannot be allowed to take place in a state education system built on the foundations of full equal opportunity for every student," wrote Justice Ayala Procaccia in the verdict. "It conveys a degrading and insulting message of social inferiority that is unacceptable."

The Petah Tikva municipality said all the students have already been placed in local schools, and it is paying part of their tuition and funding remedial classes. The city said the students were rejected because the schools decided they had an inadequate religious background, not because of their race, ethnicity or country of origin.

High Court justices Procaccia, Elyakim Rubinstein and Hanan Melcer said they were not aware of any students who have not been registered for classes, but the court had to make clear its opposition to discrimination, regardless of where the 24 students were placed.

"This is about the right of children to equality in education, and the state's obligation to let the individual fully exercise that right," wrote Procaccia. "The phenomena of inequality and discrimination in education are fundamentally unacceptable, and require the authorities to take decisive action to eliminate them, using all the power legally at their disposal."

Rubinstein added that it is "fitting" for the state to stop funding any institution that seeks to infringe on equality. He said other tools should also be used, including closer inspection of schools.

The court was responding to a petition filed two years ago by the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews, an advocacy group that fights for the rights of Ethiopian immigrants and their offspring. At the time, the petitioners asked the court to order the Education Ministry and the Petah Tikva municipality to place the 24 students in local schools immediately. The petitioners also wanted the court to order the state to stop funding, and ultimately shut down, schools that persisted in their refusal to take in students of Ethiopian origin.

The court fully supported the advocacy group's position that semi-private schools should not be exempt from anti-discrimination laws, saying that every type of school is "subject to the fundamental principles of the rule of law in Israel, including human rights."