A School of 290 Students, 289 of Them Black

Petah Tikvah city hall won't let Ethiopian kids transfer out of elementary school.

Dozens of parents of Ethiopian origin have been blocked by the Petah Tikva municipality from moving their children from the majority-Ethiopian religious Ner Etzion elementary school to other schools in the city.

school - Nir Keidar - August 31 2010
Nir Keidar

Most of the requests were based on the parents' desire not to have their children studying in a school whose student population was nearly exclusively Ethiopian. The municipality, backed by the Education Ministry, rejected most of the requests, saying that it could not force the other religious schools, private and public, to accept a large group of Ethiopian students.

"The arrangement with the schools is based on the assumption that each religious school takes only a small group of Ethiopian students. Taking several dozen such children is out of the question," a source with close knowledge of the Petah Tikva education system told Haaretz.

Of the 290 students expected to attend Ner Etzion this year, only one, first-grader Ran Keinan, is not of Ethiopian origin. The process by which the Ethiopian students became the school's majority took place over a period of years, and is due to the large number of Ethiopian families in the underprivileged neighborhoods for whom this is their default school, and partly because the parents not of Ethiopian background removed their children from the school.

While some moved their children to independent Orthodox schools (most of them associated with Shas), while others moved their children to other state-religious schools, with the approval of the municipality.

Another source said that Ner Etzion provided a convenient solution for everyone involved - everyone, that is, except the parents who wanted to move their children to a different school. "The existence of a school that contains nearly 300 children of Ethiopian background means other schools don't need to take them," the source said.

Young Ran Keinan comes to the school from a "Shuvu" network kindergarden, where most children are from families with their origins in the former Soviet Union. "Ran had a great time in the kindergarten, and there's no reason why he shouldn't get along fine in Ner Etzion, even if he is the only 'white' kid in the school," said Ran's father, Rabbi Amiel Keinan. He said that the mass exodus of veteran Israelis from the increasingly Ethiopian-majority school was "utterly shameful. It's a phenomenon that disgusts me."

Rabbi Keinan teaches in a yeshiva in Petah Tikva, which includes students with special needs. "It's all about values," he says. "Integration and equality are very important in our yeshiva, so I thought, why not do the same at home. In the class I teach in the yeshiva there are recent immigrants from Ethiopia, France and the United States, as well as native Israelis. And it's fine. Why can't the same be happening in first grade? This was the background for my decision to register Ran at Ner Etzion."

Sources in the municipality stressed to Haaretz that the students at Nir Etzion "get special assistance not enjoyed by any other schools. They get longer schooldays, up to 4 P.M., a hot meal and hundreds of hours of extra classes [schoolwide] each week. Students who didn't read Hebrew a year ago have acquired the language, test results are excellent, and graduates are accepted into the best yeshivas."

One municipality source said: "With all due respect to the parents, in other schools these kids wouldn't get the same attention." The sources also stressed that all transfer requests to secular schools were confirmed.

The Education Ministry said in a statement that student registration falls under the responsibility of the local authority, but decisions made at the local authority level can be appealed to the district director at the ministry. "No appeals hav been received so far," the ministry said, noting it ran support programs in schools with high percentages of recent immigrants.

Children in the largely Ethiopian neighborhood were divided on the issue, with some saying they'd like to have some "white" friends and other saying caucasian Israelis shunned them at school and called them "Negroes."