After their lost summer vacation, where their fun and freedom was marred by rockets, war, if Israeli children deserved one thing, it was a calm and peaceful first week of school.
But for several hundred children in the city of Beit Shemesh, that was not to be. The image dominating their back-to-school experience wasn’t the welcoming face of a new teacher or a beloved classmate - but those of a tall ugly wall in the middle of the schoolyard. In blood-red paint, scrawled across the 2.5 meter divider divider are the words “Separation Wall” and “An Embarrassment to Zionism.”
In a sad piece of irony, the wall dividing the “The School for Languages and Cultures” was erected alongside paintings of smiling people from different lands in a variety of national garb in a show of multicultural. But they are just pictures: none of the real-life adults in the world of these students are communicating calmly in language: their way of staking out their positions has been brutal and not very cultured.
And the whole shameful situation is certainly anything but educational.
The school is an outpost of non-Orthodox education in Ramat Beit Shemesh, a part of the city that was mixed but has grown increasingly religious and dominated by the ultra-Orthodox. Two days before the first day of school, as teachers were preparing for the new year, half of the school was seized by the municipality, the locks broken, the school divided into two, by outside contractors who physically bullied the stunned teachers of the school, who called the police. Using military language, the municipality called it a “surgical operation” to make a “unilateral change” - moving 200 first grade girls from the haredi Bais Yaacov school “Mishkenot Daat” into the building. It was the worst possible way and the most provocative approach to addressing a real problem - overcrowding and insufficient classroom space in the ultra-Orthodox sector of Beit Shemesh.
And so, all connecting points between the two sections of the school were sealed off - and the separation wall went up an existing fence.
The wall taught the secular children an ugly message on the first day of school - that even the very sight of non-haredi children was offensive to their religious peers. Imagine if the tables were turned and it was secular society that was repelled by the sight of observant Jews and built ghetto walls around them to keep them out of sight?
To be fair, the behavior on the secular adults wasn’t particularly admirable, either. The understandable but excessive response of some members of the secular community (and the political opposition) on September 1 was to attack the wall with pickaxes, hurled chairs at them and defiled the white wall with the graffiti - basically throwing the adult form of a tantrum. And all in front of the children - not the best role models.
And what of the little haredi first-grade girls on the other side of the wall? Entering grade school is difficult and scary enough without being placed in the line of fire of a controversy they likely can’t understand, and being shoved into classrooms in half of a school, in a different location than the higher grades in the school. Add to that the smashing and banging noise on the wall, next to them. And on their third day of school, after the Ministry of Education, which has locked horns with the mayor, has successfully petitioned the court to remove the girls, they were transformed into six-year-old political pawns, put on display as “homeless” students being taught outdoors on the street in the sweltering heat.
At the end of the day, all of the children - and their parents - are victims. Victims of a municipality which is building housing for the ultra-Orthodox at an excessive rate, disregarding the fact that educational infrastructure can’t accommodate their numbers in place. Victims of a haredi leadership that appears to feel so invincible after its victory in the municipal elections it can thumb its nose at the law and the Ministry of Education. The goal of this provocation points to either utter incompetence on the part of Mayor Moshe Abutbul - or a deliberate flexing its muscles in an effort to drive non-haredim out of Ramat Beit Shemesh, and perhaps out of the city entirely. And they may well succeed.
The opening of school back in September 2011, when haredi men harassed the young national relgious girls of Orot Banot was the opening salvo in the war for Beit Shemesh heard around the country.
It seems as if September 2014 will mark another milestone - and the wall in the schoolyard is an appropriate emblem. This year may be remembered as the beginning of the end of Beit Shemesh as one municipality. The only way to prevent it from becoming a second Bnei Brak, nearly entirely ultra-Orthodox, may be formal division in two cities: one secular and national religious, another ultra-Orthodox.
That we have had to turn to walls and separation when it comes to Israelis and Palestinians is bad enough - to conclude that it is becoming necessary to divide Jew from Jew is more depressing still. After all, how can we aspire to coexistence with our neighbors when we can’t coexist with ourselves?
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