The school year opened with an uproar in Beit Shemesh on Monday, as parents and teachers at a secular public school launched a partial strike to protest the city’s decision to allot half the building to an ultra-Orthodox girls school.
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To enforce the separation, the municipality placed a solid metal divider down the middle of the schoolyard and stationed guards at the School for Languages and Cultures.
The city said the decision was precipitated by a severe shortage of classrooms in ultra-Orthodox schools, adding that many of the students at the contested school are bused in from a different neighborhood. The secular school has many empty classrooms, and is located in the heart of the largely ultra-Orthodox, or Haredi, neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh.
The Education Ministry sided with the parents at the secular school and forbade the municipality to divide it, saying the city was damaging the delicate fabric of relations among the city’s various population groups. The ministry even threatened to cut the city’s funding if it persisted, but the municipality ignored the threat.
The ministry also said the Beit Shemesh municipality rejected an offer of an alternative building for the Haredi students.
Outraged secular parents, led by opposition members of the city council, staged a demonstration at the site Monday to protest what they said was a Haredi “takeover” of Beit Shemesh. Clashes erupted during the protest, and police detained several people for questioning.
The parents also kept their children home from school yesterday.
Tatiana Illouz, chairwoman of the school’s parents committee, said the classrooms being handed over are not actually unused.
“There are regular classrooms and there are specialized classrooms for computers and music, but the school isn’t empty,” she said. “We’re willing to talk about moving to a new place, but not through a coup like this. ... I love Beit Shemesh, but nobody will harm my children.”
Illouz said that until Wednesday, nobody in either the school administration or the parents committee knew the city was planning to divide the school. That day, municipal officials summoned administrators to an urgent meeting to tell them half the classrooms and half the playground were being handed over to the Haredi girls school Mishkenot Da’at.
“We applied [for help] to anyone we could, and the Education Ministry said this process was improper,” Illouz said. “So we thought that everything was okay. And then suddenly, on Sunday, when the teachers were preparing for the school year, they heard noise. A contractor had come, with guards, who cut the chain on the gate. The teachers blocked it and called the police.”
Illouz said she and three teachers were hurt when the workers and guards tried to push past them into the school.
“At first the police evicted the workers and guards, but a few hours later, they let them enter and start work,” she said. “We didn’t even manage to extract equipment that remained in the classrooms. It was violent.”
The issue is bigger than who gets which classroom, said Eli Cohen, opposition leader on the Beit Shemesh city council.
“What’s astounding is that the State of Israel and the Education Ministry aren’t succeeding in enforcing their view on the municipality,” he said. “This isn’t an argument over yardage; it’s an argument over the Zionist character of the state. This fence is the beginning of the end of Zionism in Beit Shemesh.”
The School for Languages and Cultures has had a shortage of students for years. Parents accused the municipality of deliberately doing nothing to improve the situation because it wanted to transfer half the building to the Haredim.
“There are also empty classrooms at Haredi schools, but there, because of internal power struggles, they don’t bring in students,” said Cohen yesterday. “Last night we discovered that they were bringing equipment to divide the school. We tried to prevent this with our bodies, but the police said the municipality was entitled to do it. They removed us at midnight.”
Parents at the School for Languages still hope the Education Ministry will alter the municipality’s decision.
But so far, the city has ignored the warning letter sent by the ministry’s director general, Michal Cohen.
“I request that you continue to work for a quiet opening of the school year, in full coordination with the Education Ministry,” Cohen wrote. “Any action that violates ministry regulations and isn’t coordinated with the ministry will lead the Education Ministry to retract its commitment to the Beit Shemesh education system.”
The municipality said its job is to ensure that all students have an appropriate place to learn, and therefore “saw fit to use the empty classrooms in the School for Languages and Cultures and fill them with students from the Mishkenot Da’at school, who live in the same neighborhood and have nowhere to learn. There’s no place left even to put trailers, like their older sisters have.”
The city said that far from being unjust, dividing the school “mitigates the severe injustice” of having a school meant for about 500 students be used for just 144.
“Most of the building stands empty,” the city said, adding that this was a “double absurdity,” since the vast majority of students come by bus from Old Beit Shemesh.
“The neighborhood where the building is located has a shortage of hundreds of classrooms, while in the neighborhoods of Old Beit Shemesh, where the school’s students live, the reverse is true: Many dozens of classrooms stand empty,” the city said in a statement.
The municipality repeatedly invited the school’s principal to come and discuss the matter and try to reach a mutually acceptable solution, according to the statement. It said the principal “chose to make herself conspicuously absent, leaving the city with no choice but to do its duty and its job toward all the city’s students. It’s a great pity that interested parties have chosen to inflame the atmosphere with violence, illegally and criminally, instead of acting responsibly and practically.”
The Education Ministry said it planned to issue a closure order for Mishkenot Da’at, saying the school had opened illegally on the grounds of another school. It has no intention of allowing the Haredi school to remain at the School for Languages, and will use all available means to deal with the issue, it added.
The ministry said it viewed the municipality’s behavior very severely, asserting that it acted improperly by moving Mishkenot Da’at into the secular school just two days before the school year began.