Israel's New Education Minister Accused of Past Ethnic Discrimination

Rabbi Shai Piron is accused by two students of having discriminated against ethnic groups at the school where he was principal from 1995 to 2007.

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Rabbi Shai Piron (Yesh Atid) was just sworn in as Israel's new education minister this week, and already the Internet is buzzing with heady accusations of past racism and discrimination.

Two graduates of Ulpanat Yeshurun, a religious high school for girls, are saying that during Piron’s tenure as principal there between 1995 and 2007, pupils were segregated on the basis of ethnicity. Both Piron and officials at the school have firmly denied the accusations, and school officials say that an investigation into the matter showed that the classes were fully integrated.

One of the accusers is attorney Yael Totchani, who attended the school until 2002. One Facebook she wrote that during her time some classes where most of the girls were Ashkenazi (of Eastern European descent), while others were predominantly made up of Mizrachi (of Middle Eastern descent) pupils.

But the claims, which first appeared on Facebook, soon devolved into a full-on virtual debate. Other graduates at the school responded to the comments by praising Piron and calling the accusations a smear campaign. Piron himself wrote to one of the accusers, demanding that she remove the item and pay him compensation. He promised to use the funds to help needy children.

About 1,500 middle- and high-school pupils attend Ulpanat Yeshurun, which is considered heterogeneous and pluralistic. During Piron’s term as principal, the school began accepting pupils from different backgrounds and emphasized integration.

Totchani wrote on her Facebook page last Thursday, “Shai Piron, minister of education. The man whose school I attended for six whole years and came to know as someone who discriminated between Mizrachim and Ashkenazim, between Ethiopians and Russians, between Yemenites and everyone else.”

Further on, she wrote, “I don’t know what the reason was,” and still later said that she did not mean that there had been separate classes for the Ethiopian pupils. Over the past few days, she was joined by another graduate of Yeshurun who also complained of discrimination.

In response, Piron wrote on his own Facebook page: “This is an unfortunate incident. She posted a status in which she accused me of racism. After years of integrating new immigrants and people with disabilities and massive engagement in equality, I find myself dealing with terrible accusations. I know that certain elements are doing all they can to hurt me.”

School officials at Yeshurun did not respond to a request for information about past enrollment and classroom make-up. Currently, all classes are integrated.
Education Ministry officials expressed amazement at the accusations. While the ministry has no statistics on the pupils for these years, a high-ranking ministry official said, “From what I know of the school, the accusations are not reasonable.”

This week, Totchani expanded her claim. “When we asked him why [the classes were segregated], he told us that the division was done according to where the pupils lived. I’m not saying he’s a racist, and I don’t know what goes on in his heart,” she said. She added that following her post, pupils who were attending the school contacted her and told her how badly they felt. Many responses on Facebook refuted her accusations, one post even claiming that her accusation was “a distortion of reality.”

Piron, who was the director-general of Hakol Hinuch, the Movement for Advanced Education in Israel, has been fighting for years against discrimination in the educational system and for integrating special-needs pupils into mainstream classes. He continued that work at the yeshiva he headed in Petah Tikva, which opposed the expulsion of pupils who had trouble in school.

Piron fought ethnic discrimination in schools, particularly against the Petah Tikva municipality and religious schools that refused to accept Ethiopian pupils. In the end, the yeshiva he headed accepted the pupils who had been rejected. In the past, Piron said that discrimination against students of Ethiopian origin in Israel was a “a moral and ethical low point.”

Yet last week, Army Radio reported that in 2002, when he answered questions of religious law on the web portal Kipa, Piron answered one question by saying that according to religious law, one must not sell one’s home to an Arab. His statement caused an uproar, with one of Piron’s associates saying in response, “His answer does not represent his personal opinion. Piron does not stand behind that religious ruling and his work in recent years for reconciliation between Arabs and Jews is unequivocal proof of that.”

In addition, it was reported that a decade ago, Piron asserted that according to Jewish religious law, homosexuality was “a problem that could be controlled and fixed.” He later retracted his position, and is now considered a supporter of the religious gay community and has the backing of its organizations. In fact, until he was appointed education minister, Piron's liberal views made him a controversial figure in the Haredi community and in some segments of the religious Zionist community as well. His appointment also caused an uproar in the secular community because of his past statements.

In response to the Facebook accusations, an officials of the Yeshurun Ulpana said, “There has never been a policy of ethnic segregation of any kind in our classes. It was certainly not the policy of Piron, during whose time the school became well-established. Under Piron, the school became an educational institution that included all ethnic, with an educational vision that regarded diversity as a value. Actually, the school was criticized a great deal for its diversity during that time.”

Education Minister Shay PironCredit: Michal Fattal

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