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The Be'er Sheva Magistrate's Court has ordered the Arad municipality and the Education Ministry to pay NIS 280,000 in compensation to five Ethiopian immigrant families whose children were removed from kindergartens during the school year. The authorities had argued that the ratio of immigrant to non-immigrant pupils was too high.

In his ruling last week, Judge Gad Gideon criticized the municipality's "arbitrary decision" to remove the children from the kindergartens "and its refusal to allow them back for many months." The judge also criticized the Education Ministry for "not doing enough to foil the [municipality's] decision."

The court said the Arad municipality will pay two-thirds of the fine. Sources said yesterday that the Education Ministry was considering challenging the verdict.

"I am very happy we won the trial, after we were told there were too many Ethiopians in kindergartens," said Adana Almayahu, one of the fathers who took legal action. "We were treated like foreign workers. It was very humiliating."

The suit was handled for the families by the nongovernmental organization Tebeka - Advocacy for Equality and Justice for Ethiopian Israelis.

The five children had emigrated with their families from Ethiopia in 2003-2004 and were settled in Arad. In September 2004 three of them were sent to pre-kindergarten and two to kindergarten, in institutions controlled by the religious state system.

A month later the municipality decided to remove 23 immigrant children, including those whose families had sued, from the kindergartens and send them to regular state kindergartens, against their parents' wishes.

The city argued that "adding children who do not speak Hebrew means withdrawing the veteran children from the collective and moving them to Shas-controlled education systems," Arad Mayor Motti Brill told the court at the time, referring to the ultra-Orthodox party.

However, not only did the immigrant parents request that their children go to religious schools, they were obligated to do so because they were undergoing a process of being "restored to Judaism," which meant that the families had committed to send their children to religious schools.

Due to their removal from the kindergartens, the children were essentially left out of school for five to seven months.

In his ruling, Judge Gideon wrote that the Arad municipality "was negligent in its actions, and in its actions it discriminated against the plaintiffs because of their origins, even if this was done inadvertently. Consequently, it ought to pay compensation."

The judge wrote that "the point is that it is the parents' right to decide whether their children will be educated in a public school or a public religious school, a right that is enshrined in law. And regulations cannot be altered because of systemic, economic or other considerations of the authorities.

"The municipality did not evade its responsibility for damages to the plaintiffs and admitted its negligence" from the onset, the judge wrote.

Officials from the Education Ministry argued that the parents were also to blame because "they opted to fight the municipality instead of accepting the alternative of sending their children to public school."

The judge rejected this argument and said that "it would have been to the benefit of the defendants not to have raised this."

The court also rejected the Education Ministry's claims that it had done everything possible.

"The fact that the plaintiffs were left at home, against the law, and the fact that every day that passed added to their suffering should have led the Education Ministry to undertake effective and practical enforcement actions," the court said.