Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu on Wednesday denounced plans by the Tel Aviv municipality to convert the city’s Shevah Mofet school, whose student body is made up largely of children of immigrants from the former Soviet Union, to a school serving the children of East African asylum seekers – whom Netanyahu called “children of infiltrators.”
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Defense Minister Avidgor Lieberman, whose Yisrael Beiteinu party’s support comes to a considerable extent from immigrants from the former Soviet Union, raised the issue at Tuesday’s cabinet meeting, asking that the government intervene to halt plans to change the use of the school.
The Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement on Wednesday saying: “The prime minister supports leaving the school as it is, an excellent school established by immigrants from the former Soviet Union in a desire to improve the Israeli education system in the fields of the sciences, math and the arts,” and saying that he “objects to its closing and conversion into an educational institution for children of infiltrators.” The statement expressed the expectation that all officials involved, from the education system, the city and the government, would support leaving the school in its current format.
The Tel Aviv municipality said in response that despite its requests to the prime minister, he chose to release a statement “instead of dealing with the problem of the foreigners of which he himself is a party to its creation.” The municipality added that despite Netanyahu’s pronouncements, “We have not seen that he has brought about the return of the foreigners to their countries of origin, as he had promised.”
The city said the number of children of asylum seekers is expected to triple in Tel Aviv, requiring the city to open somewhere between four and eight elementary schools in the coming years, in addition to three or four secondary schools.
Haaretz has learned that the decision by municipal officials to convert Shevah Mofet, which is located in a neighborhood with a large number of foreign migrants, is being pursued to avoid building a school for the migrants’ children in Levinsky Park near the city’s central bus station, the nerve center of Israel’s community of foreign nationals. The plan at the park called for construction of an elementary school and a high school, each with 18 classrooms, but it would have been built on an area consisting of about half the current area of the park.
In its statement, the municipality leveled allegations of “political and populist” exploitation “on the backs of the residents of south Tel Aviv and immigrants from the former Soviet Union instead of dealing in a businesslike manner with a problem that at this time involves only one school.”
The Prime Minister’s Office retorted: “The mayor and the Tel Aviv municipality should be ashamed over the closure of such an outstanding educational institution, as well as the inappropriate style of their response. Following the policies of Prime Minister Netanyahu, more than 20,000 infiltrators have voluntarily left Israel in the past 10 years. The prime minister will continue [to pursue] this policy.”
A protest was held Wednesday evening by opponents of the school’s conversion, and another demonstration planned by the parents committee at Shevah Mofet is planned for Thursday, the first day of school.
“[Tel Aviv Mayor Ron] Huldai declared war on us, so we are giving war back,” a post on a Facebook page in connection with one of the protests said, adding that Wednesday’s protest was organized in “anger at the turning of neighborhoods bordering the central bus station into an educational complex for offspring of the wild birthrate of the infiltrators.”
In recent months, residents of south Tel Aviv, where most of the city’s asylum seekers live, have protested plans to build the school for migrants’ children in Levinsky Park, a park that is a central gathering place for many of the migrants. For their own separate reasons, human rights activists have also protested plans to build in Levinsky Park, saying it is the only green space in the area.
City officials looked for an alternative to building the schools for the migrants in Levinsky Park and ultimately decided to suspend plans to build there, settling on the Shevah Mofet school building instead.
The Tel Aviv Municipality issued a statement saying: “In order not to harm Levinsky Park, which constitutes the green lung of the Neveh Sha’anan neighborhood, and to address the request of neighborhood residents who have objected to the building of the education complex at the site, it has been decided, in coordination with the Education Ministry to begin to make use of the Shevah Mofet building for the benefit of the children of the area.”