At least 100 students of Ethiopian origin in Petah Tikva do not know what school they will be attending in the fall, with the opening of the school year just two and a half weeks away. The uncertainty stems from the fact that the city's private schools with an ultra-Orthodox or national Orthodox bent have refused to accept children of Ethiopian origin.
Much of the funding for the private schools comes from the Education Ministry and the city. Education Ministry director general Shimshon Shoshani said Wednesday that the schools that continue to refuse to enroll the children will be fined and may have their licenses suspended.
A few days ago the Petah Tikva municipality told the city's private schools that they would need to enroll about 70 students of Ethiopian origin. Another 30 students were to be enrolled in the public Orthodox school system, where most Ethiopian-Israeli students go. However, sources at the ministry and municipality said conversations with officials at the private schools indicated that they would refuse to enroll the children.
Administrators at the city's public Orthodox schools said they would not accept the 30 children as planned.
Sources familiar with the situation said that around 150 to 200 students of Ethiopian origin are to go to school in Petah Tikva.
According to a senior city official, the private schools "told us specifically that they do not intend to register the new students. It's clear to everyone that the response to the enrollment instruction would be negative, but we had to go public with it to allow the Education Ministry to begin the process of imposing monetary fines."
The Education Ministry was unable to provide figures on the percentage of Ethiopian-Israeli children in Petah Tikva in the coming school year and suggested that the municipality would have the figures.
Numbers obtained from various sources vary widely. Sources in the official (public Orthodox) system say their schools have an enrollment of between 10 percent and 100 percent of children of Ethiopian origin. The entire student body at the public Orthodox Ner Etzion school is Ethiopian-Israeli after the other children's parents enrolled them elsewhere over the past two years.
Even among the private schools, enrollment of Ethiopian-Israelis varies. Private schools with a less strict ultra-Orthodox bent take in more Ethiopian-Israelis (7 to 8 percent), while private schools of the Zionist ultra-Orthodox stream enroll as little as 2 percent.
"We demand an egalitarian and balanced division of immigrant absorption in the city," said the chairman of the citywide parents committee for Petah Tikva's public Orthodox schools, Nir Orbach. Orbach indicated that the private schools make themselves attractive to parents "for example by having no immigrant integration at all, while we fight every day to survive." Orbach said that if the private schools did not take the children, "we will shut down the school system in the city."
Hakol Hinuch, an association working for educational reform nationwide, warned that it would take the case to the High Court of Justice to force the private schools to increase their number of Ethiopian-Israeli children. In a letter to Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar, Hakol Hinuch's legal adviser Aviad Cohen wrote that the case was one of "improper discrimination from a moral point of view, in opposition to fundamental principles, both Jewish and democratic."
According to Hakol Hinuch's executive director, Rabbi Shay Piron, only a few weeks ago the private schools had demanded 100 percent of the funding they are entitled to according to the so-called Gafni law, and that "now it turns out that they are willing to take part in zero percent of public obligations, like helping to absorb immigrants."
In response, Yigal Amitay, representing the private Darchei Noam school belonging to the Zionist ultra-Orthdox system, with a student body of 600, said the school had accepted 14 Ethiopian-Israeli students. "As for the coming year, we will accept anyone who suits the Torah-focused atmosphere and the intensive level of studies at the school. All students the city refers to us will be examined," Amitay said.
Haim Freulichman, the chairman of the association supporting another of Petah Tikva's private ultra-Orthodox schools, Da'at Mevinim, said that "we have accepted and we will continue to accept students of Ethiopian origin. Everything is coordinated with the municipality."
The figures show that Da'at Mevinim enrolled only about seven children of Ethiopian origin.
The other private schools declined to comment for this report.
The director of an organization of representatives of Ethiopian-Israeli community groups, Dani Kashun, said that "the struggle is focusing on the fact that the schools have to enroll our children. A refusal to do so is discrimination. This is not a community problem only, but one with broad implications - today it's immigrants from Ethiopia, tomorrow it can happen to any other community."
The Education Ministry said Wednesday: "It is the obligation of the local authority to assure the enrollment of all students living in its jurisdiction. The ministry will demand that the students also be enrolled in the 'recognized but unofficial schools.' If this is not done, the ministry will take all the educational and administrative steps at its disposal."