The principals of the ultra-Orthodox girls’ schools at the heart of a storm over alleged discrimination against Mizrahi students skipped a Knesset Education Committee meeting on the subject on Wednesday.
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More than a month after the school year began, dozens of ultra-Orthodox (or Haredi) girls are still sitting at home because the schools to which the local education department assigned them refuse to accept them. This is a problem that recurs almost every year.
Almost all the girls in question are of Mizrahi descent (Jews of Middle Eastern or North African origin), while the student body at the schools in question is overwhelmingly Ashkenazi (Jews of Eastern European descent).
Deputy Education Minister Meir Porush — of the Ashkenazi, ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party — also skipped Wednesday’s meeting.
Itzik Zahavi, who heads the ministry’s ultra-Orthodox education administration, told lawmakers that the ministry plans to step up sanctions against any principal who doesn’t obey the local education department’s order to accept the girls.
These sanctions could include halting state funding for the schools, starting criminal proceedings against the principals for violating the Compulsory Education Law, firing the principals or, “in extreme cases, even closing the educational institution,” he said.
Relatives of two of the girls attended the meeting to describe their suffering. One said his sister had been “crying day and night” since being rejected by a well-regarded ultra-Orthodox school in Jerusalem.
While solutions have been found for some of those affected, as of Wednesday about 40 students were still sitting at home and waiting.
In some cases, these are excellent students from well-off families who were still rejected by well-regarded Ashkenazi schools on various pretexts. The schools have persisted in their refusal to accept the girls, despite explicit orders from the Education Ministry or local authority.
There are also some girls who weren’t accepted to their first-choice school but are refusing to attend the schools where the local authority eventually placed them.
The principals argue that the ministry has no right to intervene in their decisions as to which girls to accept or reject, because doing so violates the ultra-Orthodox school system’s autonomy.
The ministry counters that this autonomy doesn’t include the right to discriminate.
Zahavi said the ministry has already halted funding to six schools that refused to take the students assigned them — two in Jerusalem, two in Beit Shemesh, one in Modi’in Ilit and one in Tiberias. Nevertheless, he said, only two of the six have so far relented.
Local governments, which are responsible for school placements, “are coping with an enormous problem whose root is the large number of students per class — over 50,” Zahavi added. Even so, he stressed, ministry policy means “you can’t discriminate against students on a racist basis.”
Zvika Cohen, a member of the Mizrahi ultra-Orthodox Shas party that holds the Haredi education portfolio in the Jerusalem Municipality, told the committee that every year some 50 girls in the capital have nowhere to go when the school year starts. Eighty percent of them are Mizrahi, he added.
He accused one Jerusalem principal of using the sound of the shofar during this week’s Rosh Hashanah holiday — which is supposed to call people to repentance — “to erase the tears of the mothers whose daughters weren’t accepted, and are still at home just because their names are Biton or Mizrahi.”
Committee Chairman Yakov Margi (Shas), who, like Cohen, advocates a hard line against the principals, blasted them for skipping the meeting. He also demanded that the ministry give the panel the names of all the girls who still lack a place — and what it plans to do about each one — by the end of October.