Tel Aviv Faces Racism Accusations as Migrants’ Children Sent to Segregated Preschools

Some 42 new classes are exclusively for asylum seekers' and migrants’ children, with six situated in north Tel Aviv – meaning kids will need to be bused in daily.

Ilan Lior
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A father takes his children to school through Levinsky Park, south Tel Aviv.
A father takes his children to school through Levinsky Park, south Tel Aviv. Credit: Moti Milrod
Ilan Lior

Although the Tel Aviv municipality says it doesn’t practice segration, it will open 42 new kindergarten classes exclusively for the children of migrant workers and refugees in the next school year. Only four new classes will feature a mix of Israelis and foreign children.

Six of the new classes will be situated in north Tel Aviv, making them difficult to access for the children, since most migrants live in the south of the city. The municipality says it is necessary to open kindergartens in the north due to the lack of space in the south.

There are virtually no mixed preschool classes in the city, after Israelis in south Tel Aviv objected to sending their children to kindergartens with the children of migrants and asylum seekers: Six months ago, when kindergarten registration for the new school year began, some parents used the municipality’s Facebook page to demand that their children not go to kindergarten with refugees’ children.

The city will now fund transportation to the kindergartens in north Tel Aviv for 210 children. In addition to transporting the children at an annual cost of some 4.5 million shekels ($1.2 million), the city will also set up afternoon centers for the children at a cost of 1 million shekels per year.

The municipality said the decision to send migrants’ children to preschools in the north stemmed solely from a shortage of buildings. However, a city hall source told Haaretz that Mayor Ron Huldai made it clear to officials that sending migrants’ children to the north sent a message to the parents that they must “share the burden.”

“It’s totally the parents’ choice. The preschools aren’t intended for foreigners or nonforeigners,” said Shirley Rimon Bracha, the city’s education department head. “Each child is allocated a preschool according to his registration area. That’s how it’s done all over the city. We have mixed kindergartens because children chose to go to mixed kindergartens, and we have kindergartens that aren’t mixed.”

Bracha said the migrants’ children generally go to separate kindergarten classes because they register late and not in an orderly fashion, and that the city is then forced to find last-minute solutions for them.

“It wasn’t deliberate,” she said. “That’s the way it came out. It’s a matter of numbers. The Israeli residents register first, in January. The migrant children haven’t even all registered yet. I entered office in April and we didn’t know even then how many of them there would be, so we need creative solutions.

“We have 1,000-1,200 children born to refugees and migrants every year,” she added. “The shortage of space is growing, and we had empty classrooms in the north.”

The number of new kindergarten classes being opened in the city is 58 percent higher than last year.

The city plans to build six additional kindergarten classrooms in Levinsky Park, south Tel Aviv, but they won’t be ready by the next school year, noted Bracha.

Dozens of children of refugees and migrant workers living in Hatikva, southeast Tel Aviv, will be sent to preschools in the north. Meanwhile, all the Israeli children who live in the same neighborhood have been placed in kindergartens close to their homes.

“We chose children from a place [Hatikva] where there’s a shortage of kindergartens,” Bracha said, not explaining why only migrants’ and refugees’ children were chosen to be driven north.

“It’s a temporary solution,” she added. “It’s not good for anyone – certainly not for the families.”

Among those being sent north are two migrant children from Kerem HaTeimanim (the Yemenite Quarter), south Tel Aviv. The city said they were registered late and all the kindergartens in their area were full.

The decision to send only migrant children to preschools in the north and open separate kindergartens for foreign children seems to refute the city’s claim that the segregation is not deliberate.

Education officials said that segregated kindergartens were discussed in previous years as a way of bridging developmental differences between Israeli and foreign children.

One official said the Israeli residents’ protest also influenced city hall’s decision.

The law says that a local government must provide educational services to all children from the age of 3, even if they’re not Israeli and their parents are staying in Israel illegally.

The main consideration in kindergarten registration, by law, is the facility’s closeness to the child’s residence. The local government may determine each kindergarten’s registration area, or open it up to enable parents to choose from several nearby kindergartens.

Lawyer Yael Kafri, a PhD student in Tel Aviv University’s law faculty who specializes in education and children’s rights, said the law prohibits a local government from discriminating on the basis of origin.

“Even if the segregation isn’t intended to discriminate, but to provide a service to groups that are segregated on the basis of ethnic origin or race – it’s prohibited,” she said. “In Israeli law, segregation in itself is seen as a discriminatory act.”

Kafri said the law prohibits the municipality from setting restrictive registration terms, which earmark certain kindergartens in advance for migrants and others for Israelis. She said the current situation was problematic.

“The segregation between the communities is no accident,” she said. “When you set a registration policy without registration areas and allow parents to choose where to go – that’s a policy. You’re actually enabling communities to keep themselves separate. In education, there are no random results. Not directing the parents’ choice is a policy, which creates a certain reality. The result is the same as if you told the Israeli parents to register to certain kindergartens, and the other parents to register to others,” she added.

The issue of segregating the children of migrants and refugees has already been raised in court. About five years ago, human-rights organizations petitioned the court on behalf of 15 South Sudanese children against the Eilat municipality, which had decided to send them to separate classrooms in a shabby, rundown facility on Kibbutz Eilot. Be’er Sheva District Court ordered the city to integrate the children into the city’s schools.

“The fear of strangers is a known thing, but it cannot be accepted,” Judge Rachel Lavi-Barkai wrote in her ruling. “The Eilat parents’ fear of having the asylum-seekers’ children in the city’s regular schools is unfounded and cannot constitute a deterring consideration to prevent integrating the children in the city’s schools.”

Ofira Ben Shlomo of Unitaf – a network of day-care and after-school centers for migrants’ and refugee children in Tel Aviv – says the segregation in Tel Aviv is not necessarily bad. “It has a whiff of racism, but I have to say that, professionally, it’s not a bad decision. Considering the children’s good above all, these [foreign] children are usually in a bad way and need special attention. Kindergarten teachers are aware of the children’s deficiencies. It’s segregation, but it has advantages because it gives the children a chance to reduce the difference,” she said.

Ben Shlomo added that in a recent meeting, the refugee children’s parents protested about sending their children to kindergartens far from home. “They were very upset,” she said. “They also felt deprived, offended and very angry. Finally, one of the parents said, ‘What will kill our children is our babysitters, not racism,’” referring to the unofficial, unsanctioned child-care arrangements that many migrant children often face.

“That highlighted the tragedy,” added Ben Shlomo. “For us, it’s unacceptable that children will stay with babysitters because the kindergartens are too far away. The alternative endangers the child’s life.”

City hall’s Bracha admitted that it’s “a very delicate subject,” noting that the refugee children “feel more comfortable within their own community, and are escorted by people who speak their languages.”

Asked why the city has no declared policy, she said, “I’m looking into the mixed-kindergarten issue to see how successful they’ve been. We want it to be good for the migrants’ children on the one hand, but also for Israeli residents to feel comfortable.”

The Education Ministry, meanwhile, said that according to the law, “The education system must admit all students aged 3-17 to schools within three months of their arrival in Israel. The registration to kindergartens is the jurisdiction of the local government. The ministry is working with the Tel Aviv municipality to provide the best answer for the students.”

Yarden Skop contributed to this story.