Israeli Arab Mayors Say Education Ministry Director Freezing Them Out Amid COVID Crisis

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Students at a school in Taibeh, 2019.
Students at a school in Taibeh, 2019.Credit: Tomer Appelbaum

Representatives of Israel's forum of Arab mayors say the director-general of the Education Ministry has postponed numerous meetings and describe his behavior as disrespectful, amid an increase in the number of COVID-19 cases in Arab communities, particularly among younger age groups and schoolchildren.

The National Committee of the Heads of Arab Localities has informed Yigal Slovik, the ministry's director-general, that they have no intention of attending a meeting with him that was scheduled for Sunday.

Haaretz has obtained a copy of a letter signed by the head of the forum, Mudar Yunes, addressed to Slovik, informing him that the council heads were cancelling the meeting after he had cancelled meetings several times previously.

Municipal leaders noted in their letter that the director-general had set up a Zoom meeting with them on September 18 and then canceled it. His office said it would try to arrange a face-to-face meeting, but that also failed to happen. Another Zoom meeting was set up for the 22nd. This meeting was also canceled at the last minute and rescheduled for the 26th, according to Yunes. “Council heads and other representatives of Arab society had prepared for each meeting despite the difficulties involved and the last-minute changes, bearing in mind the gravity of the situation, which requires urgent attention," Yunes wrote to Slovik. "We note the way this is being handled, with the repeated cancellation of meetings, as indicating contempt and disrespect towards Arab society and its representatives, which points, regrettably, to a lack of care and indifference to what this society is going through." Yunes demanded a meeting with Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton. “We believe it's time to meet the honorable minister, so as to provide a rapid response and solution to the challenges and questions the coronavirus has posed for schools in the Arab education system,” he wrote.

In their letter, the mayors claimed that the Education Ministry’s preparations for a return to schools in the Arab sector were sketchy and demonstrated insufficient preparation. “Responses were not given in an appropriate fashion, there was no evidence that the ministry had taken any action and it seems that everyone was on vacation for the [Jewish High Holy Days], leaving Arab society without suitable answers despite the emergency, thereby exposing it, regrettably, to this terrible disease.”

The Arab community has been fighting the spread of the virus, including among schoolchildren. Ayman Saif, the Health Ministry official, who directs the campaign against the virus in Arab communities, told Haaretz that the numbers speak for themselves. More than 40 percent of positive tests in Israel come from Arab communities, with more than 60 percent of new cases appearing in people under 18 years of age.

Saif emphasized that the rising numbers in Arab communities are mainly a result of the beginning of the school year, noting that Arab schools remained open while Jewish schools were closed for the High Holy Days. Saif noted that the number of tests has recent weeks, saying this accounts for the increase in the number of people infected. “If we had 50 tests per 10,000 people earlier this month, we now have 140,” he said. Saif added that in tandem with these numbers, there is also a rise in the number of vaccinated people. According to official figures, the percentage of vaccinated people in the 12-15 age group in Arab communities is 47, while 34 percent of the Arab community as a whole have received a booster shot. In the over-60 age group, 65 percent have received their third dose.

Saif also criticized the Education Ministry, saying there is insufficient cooperation with municipal leaders. He noted that in some Arab communities that should have schools closed based on criteria set by the government, in-person classes are taking place anyway.

According figures to the Arab community’s emergency committee for dealing with the pandemic, based partly on Health Ministry numbers, 72 Arab towns or villages are labeled “red,” meaning the highest level of infection, while 16 are “orange,” the second-highest level. Eighty-four percent of Arab citizens now live in red cities or towns. Around 30 percent of those eligible for the vaccine in the Arab community are unvaccinated, numbering over 320,000, according to the committee.

Ahmed al-Sheikh, a member of the emergency committee and the head of the Galilee Society NGO, said the beginning of the school year contributed to the rise in the number of people infected, along with the lack of compliance with instructions, including the ban on large weddings. “There is an urgent need for mobilization of an emergency plan, with an emphasis on increasing awareness and an increase in vaccination rates,” he says.

The Education Ministry said that "the deferment of the [last] meeting occurred due to a meeting with the prime minister and other professionals, including the people in charge of the pandemic in general and in Arab society. Regarding moves to limit the spread of coronavirus in Arab society: Director-general Slovik will hold a meeting with Arab leaders as soon as possible in order to continue and ensure the continuation of studies in Arab schools, while protecting the health of students and staff."

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