A child in an Israeli playground.
A child in an Israeli playground. Photo by Nir Keidar
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Zohar Dasa and Tomer Vesa, two young men of Ethiopian origin, returned from work last night and met as usual at the corner grocery store. That isn't the start of a joke; on the contrary. Nearby, several young mothers watched their children on the playground. They, too, were all Ethiopian.

Down the street was a locked, abandoned school - the Petah Tikva school that has been the talk of the country. Welcome to the city's black ghetto, the black ghetto of Israel.

All the children once studied in this school, Ner Etzion, but it is now closed, after Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar bowed to the parents' demands that their children no longer attend an almost exclusively Ethiopian school. Last September, Haaretz reported that "290 students will study at the Ner Etzion school in Petah Tikva this year. Of them, 289 are from families that immigrated from Ethiopia."

The posters adorning the walls of this state-religious school feature Hasidic musicians; they are all white. Nowhere in the school is there any hint of the children's origin.

It's not pleasant to see a shuttered school, but it is testimony to the drama that has played out within and without its walls - an Israeli drama of racism and feelings of discrimination, of Ethiopians being shunted aside and concentrated in black neighborhoods with black schools, in the best tradition of the Zionist enterprise, which previously gave us the development towns. Now, we have "development" neighborhoods: The Ethiopians are all settled in distressed neighborhoods on the city's eastern edge. The divisions are legion: whites versus blacks, veteran immigrants versus new ones, "proper" Jews versus Falashmura - all of them longing to be Israeli.

On the other side of the city, Russian immigrants are fighting to keep their children in the mostly-Russian Gordon School. But here, they want the opposite: integration.

Zohar Dasa came to Israel with his parents at age two; today, he is 28. When he learned at Ner Etzion, there were barely 10 Ethiopians there, and he actually has fond memories of it. "In kindergarten there was the 'black' issue; the whole kindergarten was against me and an Indian boy," he said. "At Ner Etzion, they welcomed us with open arms."

But more recently, he charged, every child at the 'Ethiopian school' was held back to the level of the weakest student, the newest immigrant.

"The problem is that there's no integration," he said. "There are no whites. The whites have an advantage in learning; they know what Lego is, what a puzzle is. If our children go to school with whites, they'll advance.

"We didn't come here to live in ghettos," he adds. "We are defined in Israel solely by color, and that hurts us. There are many places where I don't belong. Our color doesn't change us, but there's racism here - racism against Arabs and racism against Ethiopians, racism against everyone who doesn't belong to the Ashkenazi hegemony. And that hurts. We came all the way from Ethiopia, our parents dreamed of Jerusalem, and in the end, we simply don't belong. And it only gets worse with time."

Tomer Vesa's first child was born three months ago. "The suffering I went through, I don't want my daughter to go through," he said. "What I feel every day, I won't let her feel, ever. The children at the school are only children. What they're going through now is a lifelong trauma. It will be with them for years; they'll grow up with discrimination. You can guess where that will take them," he added, citing drugs and crime as likely outcomes.

Dasa's niece goes to a 'white' secular school. He himself is religious, but he approves. "Our form of religion isn't the same as theirs," he said, referring to the state-religious schools, "but the religious schools force us into their form of religion. That creates an identity crisis for the children, a vacuum: The child doesn't know what and who he is. A secular school is preferable."

At the nearby playground, several mothers speak quietly against the newest immigrants from Ethiopia, who aren't Jewish like them. A 10-year-old girl comments on her now-closed school: "A terrible school. It's on a low level because we're all Ethiopians. They put all the Ethiopians in this school, and my father doesn't want me to study in a school that's all Ethiopian. We want to be integrated. We want to learn with the whites, because that way, we'll learn better."

On the other side of the road, Zahava Avraham, a university graduate who works as a guidance counselor, plays with her three children in the park. Her husband, a policeman, died of cancer three months ago aged 37, but even that didn't erase her optimistic smile. Now, however, it has disappeared. She is still trying to register her daughter for school, and is convinced the girl won't be accepted - just because she's Ethiopian.