Israeli Education Ministry Drops Support for Policy Biased Against Mizrahi Jews

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Attorney Nasreen Alian sitting with the father of a girl.
Attorney Nasreen Alian sitting with the father of a girl.Credit: Olivier Fitoussi

The Education Ministry has withdrawn its support for a municipality’s practice of preventing ultra-Orthodox students from Mizrahi families – Jews of Middle Eastern descent – from transferring to predominantly Ashkenazi ultra-Orthodox schools.

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The decision, which applies to both girls’ and boys’ schools, came last month after the filing of a lawsuit.

The reasoning behind the ban is that it is necessary to maintain students’ “educational continuity.”

“The rationale for the policy was to maintain the fabric at the schools, which address the needs of different populations,” the municipality said.

R., the father of a Mizrahi girl, challenged the practice at the Jerusalem District Court. He said at a hearing that he had sought to enroll his daughter at a school near their home, but the school rebuffed him.

There are other parents in similar circumstances chose not to fight the issue, he added.

The practice advocated by the local government barred the transfer of students from the Ma’ayan Hahinuch Hatorani school system sponsored by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party to a school of the predominantly Ashknenazi Hinuch Atzma’i school system.

At a hearing about a month ago, the Education Ministry suddenly informed the court that it no longer supported the policy. The ministry’s change may affect school registration for the fall, which has just begun.

R. filed suit against the Hinuch Atzma’i school system, the municipality and the Education Ministry. His daughter has not attended any school since the beginning of the school year last fall.

The ministry said the policy was that of the local government and not the ministry itself. Sources told Haaretz that the same policy exists at Hinuch Atzma’i schools in other locales.

R. said the issue of “educational continuity” is only raised when girls from one school system seek to transfer to another. Even if some Mizrahi girls manage to transfer, “they are only accepted after the parents give it all they have. Ashkenazi girls are accepted with open arms,” he said.

A senior official at the Education Ministry said the practice is “contrary to law and regulations, but also to educational philosophy.” So-called educational continuity is usually cover for other considerations, the official said.

Yoav Laloum, a lawyer with the group Noar Kehalacha who has been fighting segregation against Mizrahi children, and Nasreen Alian, a lawyer with the education law clinic at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, said the practice constitutes serious discrimination.

They say that Mizrahi girls can only be more easily registered at Hinuch Atzma’i schools for the first grade. They say this raises the suspicion that there is a quota for these girls.

The Hinuch Atzama’i school system and R.’s local government denied the claims, saying that ethnic background was not a consideration.

The school system said “educational continuity” was important to protect a small school that cannot accept every student seeking to attend it.

The predominantly Ashkenazi school system also said there is no distinction between Ashkenazim and Mizrahim because girls from both backgrounds are students at both schools involved in the case.

Both cited backing from the Education Ministry, but at a district court hearing on December 18, it became clear that any support by the ministry for the policy had ended.

Representatives of Hinuch Atzma’i and the municipality said they were unaware that the ministry had changed its stance.

A lawyer for the ministry, Moshe Viliger, told the court that in any event, the previous policy did not constitute discrimination based on ethnic background, but at most “institutional discrimination.”

District Court Judge Ram Winograd dismissed the suit based on the ministry’s assurance that it would convene an appeals panel that would consider the case of R.’s daughter. Later in December, the panel granted the girl’s appeal for personal reasons. Alian and Laloum, however, asked for written confirmation of the new policy.

“It is not a written policy,” said Viliger, the ministry’s lawyer. “The ministry’s policy was stated at the court hearing.”

The Education Ministry said the claim regarding “educational continuity” is not ministry policy and was suggested by the local authority.

“Thanks to the ministry’s intervention and the request by the school’s owners to re-examine the issue, the student [R.’s daughter] was accepted at the educational institution that she requested.”

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