Beit Shemesh school
Parents protesting outside the Beit Shemesh school. Photo by Gil Cohen Magen
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National religious parents of girls due to begin their studies on Thursday at the Orot school in Beit Shemesh, who are trying to stave off a takeover of the school by members of the town's ultra-Orthodox community, received a letter of support Tuesday from Prime Minister's Office Director General Eyal Gabai.

The parents, who are maintaining an ongoing presence at the school, called in police after ultra-Orthodox protesters broke into the building Sunday night. However, the police reportedly said they could not stop the ultra-Orthodox from entering the premises.

Beit Shemesh Mayor Moshe Abutbul wrote the national religious parents association last week that he could not guarantee the girls' safety if they used the building. The national religious girls were therefore relocated to another school.

Gabai harshly criticized the municipality and Abutbul for not supporting the parents and for disrupting the beginning of the school year.

Tuesday, about 100 angry parents from the national religious community came to the school and a violent confrontation broke out. Police then removed the small group of ultra-Orthodox barricading themselves in the school. For a few hours about 1,500 parents from all over the city rallied at the school in support of the parents of the girls who are due to study there.

Meanwhile, Beit Shemesh police Chief Superintendent Kobi Cohen told the leaders of the parents' committee at a meeting Tuesday that contrary to the mayor's statement that the girls would be in danger if the school opened, Cohen had "the backing to place forces at the site for as long as necessary."

Although the Orot school is in a national religious neighborhood, it borders on an ultra-Orthodox neighborhood, and members of that community say they do not want the girls so close to their neighborhood.

The Education Ministry sent two letters Tuesday to the Beit Shemesh municipality stating that security would be provided at the school so studies could begin as planned.

Meanwhile, Education Ministry Director General Shimshon Shoshani held a meeting in his office Tuesday with four principals of ultra-Orthodox high schools in Jerusalem who had refused to accept girls of Mizrahi origin after the girls were assigned there by the municipality. The principals told Shoshani that the girls were unsuitable for their schools due to "scholastic background and lifestyle." Shoshani instructed the principals to accept some of the girls and the municipality to find a school for the others by the beginning of the school year tomorrow.

Following a scathing state comptroller's report on the failure of the Education Ministry to prevent discrimination, Shoshani sent a letter about six weeks ago to mayors and municipal education department heads in Jerusalem, Bnei Brak, Modi'in Ilit and Betar Ilit instructing them to "immediately enroll the many female students who were not accepted to Haredi high schools." Shoshani demanded to see evidence of the girls' enrollment no later than August 28, with which they did not comply.

When ultra-Orthodox leader Rabbi Yosef Shalom Elyashiv found out about Shoshani's letter, he called a meeting of the principals and according to Elyashiv's associates, instructed them not to cooperate with the Education Ministry.