Advocacy Group Taking Sa'ar to Court Over 'Ethiopian Ghetto'

High Court to hear petition against Education Minister today.

Three weeks into the school year, 70 students of Ethiopian origin from the shuttered Nir Etzion school are still at home, despite the municipality's assertion that all of the children have been assigned to other institutions. The High Court of Justice is scheduled to hear a petition this morning against Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar, his ministry and the city of Petah Tikva.

The petition was filed by Tebeka, a legal advocacy organization for Ethiopian Israelis.

ethiopians - Alon Ron - September 21 2011
Alon Ron

Nearly all of the students at the Nir Etzion school were children of Ethiopian immigrants. The school was closed abruptly at the start of the school year as part of a ministry decision to integrate children of Ethiopian descent more fully into Israeli society. But many schools in the city have balked at admitting the children, citing academic compatibility issues.

Tebeka wants the High Court to order the placement of all Nir Etzion students in mixed classrooms. The nongovernmental organization is also demanding sanctions against schools that refuse to admit the children - or that discriminate against them in any way - including the withdrawal of state funds and even closure of noncompliant institutions.

"The poor decision to close the school, on the grounds that it was the parents who created this situation, and the timing [of the closure] are unacceptable," said attorney Yasmin Keshet, who is representing Tebeka in the petition.

"There was deliberate tracking [of the students] for years that led to an 'Ethiopian ghetto' situation," Keshet said.

"If the solution now lies in schools outside the city that are so good, then why bus only Ethiopians to them? All the authorities turn a blind eye to the fact that only 19 students were placed in four private schools in Petah Tikva - in other words, fewer than five in each institution. They prefer sending the children outside the city in order to avoid a confrontation with the private schools," she said.

According to Keshet, city officials claim that leaders of the Ethiopian community are not fulfilling promises they made during negotiations over school placement, and failed to translate the city's position into Amharic for parents whose Hebrew is weak.

"They have the chutzpah to go to the activists and complain that they didn't agree to translate for the representatives of the municipality," Keshet said. "Their chutzpah has no limits. If the municipality wants to communicate with the parents, it should hire an interpreter."

Sa'ar also ordered the closure of the state religious school Rashbi in Be'er Yaakov, almost all of whose students are of Ethiopian origin. The local council did not implement the directive, on the ground that it was following the wishes of the parents. Rashbi students report to the school every day, even though the Education Ministry did not assign any teachers to the first- and second-grade classes. For the first week of school, children were placed with a teacher's aide; for the past two weeks they were taught by teachers who are not Education Ministry employees and who were hired by the local council.

"This is additional proof that the ministry's action was solely for the purpose of appearances," said Efrat Yerday of the Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews. "It's cosmetic in nature, and at the end of the day, these children are not receiving adequate care and are not under the ministry's responsibility."