Gideon Sa'ar Finds a Promise to Ease Tensions in Beit Shemesh

Beit Shemesh's state school in the Orthodox neighborhood of Ramat Beit Shemesh will be able to continue operating at least until the end of the next school year, contrary to a plan of the city's Shas-affiliated council head, Mayor Moshe Abutbul.

After a visit to Beit Shemesh by Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar on Tuesday, Abutbul told an ultra-Orthodox radio station that the school would remain open as part of an agreement with the Education Ministry in exchange for a promise to build "100 classrooms for Haredi education" in the city.

Sa'ar's visit followed a rise in tensions between the ministry and the municipality in view of a city council decision that the secular school be handed over to the Haredi education system.

The municipality says the Haredi system is suffering from a shortfall of 250 classrooms, and Abutbul had no problem in getting the city council, almost entirely ultra-Orthodox, to vote for closing the school and splitting its students among other city schools. The decision exacerbated tensions between Orthodox, secular and national religious residents. Last week a bullet was sent to Abutbul's office with a threatening letter regarding the city council's decision.

However, even among non-Haredi residents, opinions are divided over whether to focus efforts on fighting the closure of a school whose student body is in any case small.

Sa'ar's visit, which was meant to ease tensions, began in the city council, where he denounced the threats on Abutbul. He then visited the school at the center of the controversy and spoke with the principal and students, continuing on to Haredi educational institutions. The minister toured a site where Haredi schools with a total of 850 pupils are housed in prefab structures.

The mayor told the ultra-Orthodox radio station Kol Haharedi that Sa'ar had promised he would build 100 classrooms for Haredi children.

Deputy Mayor Shmuel Greenberg (United Torah Judaism), who holds the city's education portfolio, told Haaretz he was unaware of that number and knew only of "added construction."

"I welcome the end of tensions, which were baseless. I also welcome the fact that the minister became aware of the distressed state of Haredi education and decided on a significant addition to construction," Greenberg said.

Abutbul said Tuesday that agreement had been reached to establish a joint committee of senior Education Ministry officials and the Beit Shemesh municipality "to create a comprehensive master plan" for the city's various education systems.