Peres: Schools' Refusal to Take Ethiopian Students Is a Disgrace

President Shimon Peres yesterday slammed the refusal by a number of schools in Petah Tikva to enroll Ethiopian immigrant children.

The decision not to enroll the students is "a disgrace no Israeli can accept," Peres said, speaking to 10th graders in Kfar Hamaccabiah.

Nobel Prize Laureate Desmond Tutu also commented on the issue, saying that the pictures of the children demonstrating against their discrimination on Haaretz's front page filled him with sorrow and reminded him of things he had forgotten.

"Let me give you an example," Peres told a student who asked him how to influence social processes. "In your place I would get on a bus and go straight to Petah Tikva to demonstrate against the people who object to enrolling Ethiopian students in three schools."

Peres told the students that teenagers have a huge power to move processes. "Don't hesitate, make your voice heard," he said.

The three private ultra-Orthodox schools in Petah Tikva, Darkei Noam, Lamerhav and Da'at Mevinim are persisting in their refusal to enroll 100 students of Ethiopian origin. Their principals have informed the Education Ministry that they would not attend the hearing scheduled in the ministry's director general Shimshon Shoshani's office.

Peres' statements came after it was reported that the Education Ministry is preparing to immediately pull all funding for private Orthodox schools that refuse to enroll Ethiopian immigrant children, according to various ministry sources.

Ministry officials said the funding would stop unless the schools agreed by Sunday - two days before the school year begins - to enroll all the students assigned to them.

"These schools will have to come to their senses and decide where they stand vis-a-vis Israeli society," Education Minster Gideon Sa'ar told Haaretz in an interview yesterday.

"Society craves a discourse based on values, contrary to what some cynics think," Sa'ar said. "The students leave school without knowing who Herzl was and what 'Shma Yisrael' is. We must change that. In addition to deepening Zionist and Jewish values, social and democratic aspects are also important. We must educate students to tolerance and to receive the other. These values are especially important in Israel's heterogenic and tribal society."

Sa'ar intends to stop the Jewish studies program introduced by former education minister, Yuli Tamir, to junior high students. He is planning a "Jewish heritage and culture" program for fourth to ninth-grade students, in which students will learn about the Hebrew calendar, the national anthem and flag, Jerusalem's centrality and more.

The program includes a trip to Jerusalem and encouraging students to enlist to the IDF and national service.

Sa'ar believes that liberal theories led to the destruction of the education system.

"Many countries in the world have long given up the liberal theories [emphasizing the student's centrality in the education process], which only destroy the education system," he said. "Our program is balanced. It includes teaching 'life skills' and listening to students. The balance must be shifted toward bolstering authority and creating an atmosphere conducive to studying."

"I have very liberal views and I don't come from a conservative background, but I cannot ignore the outcry of teachers and principals who feel abandoned in the daily struggle in the education arena," he added. "I remember my mother, who was a high school teacher, seeing the deterioration in students' behavior toward teachers and each other ... If we can change the conduct and discipline factors even a little it would help to improve achievements."

The violence and disciplinary problems are part of the "I deserve - I feel like it" attitude, he says.

"We have to stop this attitude," he says. "The education system has gone backward, not only in discipline but in setting goals for the students. I'm not suggesting making students stand in the corner but there's certainly room to examine some of the teaching practices of the past, like learning classical cultural landmarks by heart. Why shouldn't a student know 'Devorah's Song' by heart?"

Sa'ar is also determined to bolster the state education system in the face of the growing private school networks, which receive generous state and municipal funding.

Sa'ar promised to prepare a detailed, politically viable plan that would change this trend. He said he is well aware of the objections this will raise in the ultra-Orthodox community, whose schools comprise most of the "recognized but unofficial" education systems.