“It’s a very good idea to open an Arab school here. Why travel for an hour, sometimes even an hour and a half, in each direction? After all, aren’t you residents here? Don’t you have rights like the Jews?” The question remains in the air, and the three Arab students continue on to their homes in Nof Hagalil, until recently Upper Nazareth, embarrassed smiles revealing their feelings. But the Jewish resident has no doubt: “This is a city of Jews and for Jews. A moment after they open an Arab school here, all the Arabs from the area will come. We can’t compromise.”
Nof Hagalil is a mixed-population city: In 2017 Arabs composed about 26 percent of its population – higher than in Ramle, somewhat lower than in Lod, in the center of the country. Nof Hagalil is also the only mixed city without a state school for its Arab community. According to Education Ministry figures, over 90 percent of the almost 3,000 Arab students attending kindergarten through 12th grade study in nearby communities, a situation that's virtually unparalleled in Jewish locales.
This week nine families from Nof Hagalil decided to take action and appealed to the Supreme Court to order the opening of a first Arab state elementary school in the city.
Last summer Nazareth District Court Judge Danny Sarfati had rejected a petition in the same vein that had been submitted by Arab parents (and their children), along with the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and the Mossawa Advocacy Center. He ruled that no damage was being done to the rights of Arab residents.
Sarfati wrote in his ruling: “I did not find any basis for the assumption that the absence of a school in the Arabic language, within the municipal jurisdiction of Upper Nazareth, undermines the rights of the Arab residents in the city to equal services and rights in the realm of education, or indicates that the education system is not accessible to them.”
Although the proceedings were conducted in public, the judge announced his decision behind closed doors. It was the appeal to it that revealed the existence of the ruling: The gag order on publicizing details about the children who were a party to the fight and to the case, remained in place.
The demand for creation of an Arab school that would be part of the state education system was made as early as the 1990s, although the first formal request was submitted only in 2013.
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“Upper Nazareth is a city that was established in order to Judaize the Galilee,” was the response of then-Mayor Shimon Gapso. “That was its purpose then, and that’s its purpose now as well.” The founding of such a school, he claimed, would mean “a final relinquishing of the character of the city as a Jewish city, and a failure of the goal for which it was established.”
While Gapso, who was convicted of accepting bribes and sentenced to jail, left office a long time ago, apparently the city still doesn’t acknowledge the fact that Nof Hagalil is a mixed city. Opposition to building an Arab school has not disappeared, but only changed its character.
Saleh Qasem is one of the parents involved in the appeal to the Supreme Court. His young son studies in Nazareth, which the family left about seven years ago due to the housing shortage.
“It doesn’t sound logical to me that I live in Upper Nazareth but send my children to another city – it’s simply unreasonable,” he repeats. “We’re good citizens, we pay taxes and obey the law, we aren’t doing anything new and we aren’t reinventing the wheel. That [i.e., the existence of schools for Arabs] is the situation in every other mixed city.”
However, the great machinations the municipality and the Education Ministry are using – backed by Sarfati's ruling – in order not to accede to the petition show that they see things differently.
In 2016 after Arab parents initially appealed to the district court, the municipality and the Education Ministry promised to examine the need for an Arab school; in mid-2017, the ministry informed them that it had not rescinded its opposition. The parents submitted yet another petition, but shortly before it was to be discussed they were invited to meet representatives of the Joint List, the Arab party that is part of Mayor Ronen Plot’s municipal coalition. The Arab politicians promised that Plot would agree to build a school, but not in the context of any legal proceedings and certainly not before the municipal election, in 2018. The parents were told that they should sit tight.
After prolonged discussion the sides reached an agreement about distributing questionnaires to examine the demand for an Arab school. But attorney Raghad Jaraisy, director of ACRI's Arab Minority Rights unit, says the agreements began to evaporate after Plot won the election. First the municipality started using regular mail instead of the internet to distribute the questionnaires, then it changed the wording and narrowed the target audience from all Arab residents to families with children of elementary-school age (subsequently – with the court’s recommendation – it included parents of children aged 4 and 5).
The municipality also added a threat: Building the school, which would probably anyway not be large enough for all local Arab pupils, would mean an end of financial support, which is meager in any case, for children studying outside Nof Hagalil.
“After Gapso, Plot asked to sit with us and we agreed, of course. We didn’t come to quarrel with anyone,” Qasem relates. “Only after the fact did we realize that they were bluffing. The municipality wasn’t really trying to examine the demand for the school, it only wanted the initiative to fail.”
Out of over 1,100 families who received the questionnaires, only 75 supported the creation of a local school. The conclusion: There is no demand for an Arab school in Nof Hagalil. Although the municipality had previously declared support for the idea and even promised to work toward its implementation, it is doubtful whether its declarations are of any practical significance.
The parents claimed in the Nazareth court that, on the assumption that every family has at least two children, the positive response by 75 families meant that at least 150 pupils would enroll in the Arab school – a number similar to that of the student body in several of the city’s other elementary schools. Sarfati rejected all their arguments and accepted the municipality’s opinion.
For her part, attorney Jaraisy explains that the issue of demand is important, but is not the only consideration. “Demand is not an exclusive and sufficient criterion for vital services that the government must provide for its citizens and residents,” she says. “Schools, police stations, health care services and courts are not based on demand only. Apparently the need to prove demand is reserved for Arabs. Almost nobody questions the right of Jews to study in the state education system in their city of residence.”
Sarfati says that his decision to reject the petition was based largely on the opinion of the Education Ministry, which maintains that the fact that for years Arab parents have sent their children to schools in Nazareth or other nearby communities is proof that there is no need for an Arab school in Nof Hagalil. The fact that 80 percent of Arab students from the city are enrolled in private schools in Nazareth proves that parents prefer private frameworks, according to the ministry – which did not mention the low level of public education in Nazareth.
No further education
Today there are four Arabic-speaking preschools in Nof Hagalil, but recognition of the importance of such frameworks goes no further. “There can be no argument that a kindergarten has to lead to further education in elementary and high schools, as in other cities,” says Ibrahim Riad, who has come to pick up his grandson at one of the kindergartens. But other Arab residents are less vehement: Some fear that any new Arab school would probably end up on the outskirts of the city and receive a small budget; others prefer private education or apparently acquiesce to a situation of long-term discrimination.
At one neglected local shopping center, various opinions are heard. Says one Jewish resident: “The Arabs have a right to build a school here, this is their home.”
Some Arab high schools students: “It’s hard for the Jews to admit that we’re a mixed city. Anyone who has a problem with an Arab school is invited to move to Afula.”
Another Jewish woman: “Nobody invited the Arabs here – it’s not our problem that there’s a housing shortage. An Arab who lives here should know that they won’t open any school for him. They have to understand that Upper Nazareth is first of all a Jewish city.”
Says Qasem, in response: “After they [Israeli authorities] took away land in Nazareth and other Arab communities, in Nof Haglil they’re complaining about the Arabs who come here because of the housing shortage. We have no alternative.”
Adds attorney Jaraisy: “The time has come for local political leaders to understand that the Arabs are not a threat, but human beings with equal rights in the city and the country.”
The Nof Hagalil Municipality: “We’re studying the current appeal and will respond in court.”
The Education Ministry: “In the ruling the judge [Sarfati] noted that he found no defect, or reason justifying intervention in the decision of the Education Ministry and the local government.”