‘The Integration Failed’: Tel Aviv Is Segregating Foreign Kids at School

Haaretz finds Tel Aviv sends children of asylum seekers and migrant workers to schools renowned for their poor education standards ■ Municipality official defends program: 'color encourages racism'

Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron
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Parents drop off their children at Gvanim School in December 2020, a school designated for the children of Tel Aviv's migrant population, a Haaretz investigation has found.
Parents drop off their children at Gvanim School in December 2020, a school designated for the children of Tel Aviv's migrant population, a Haaretz investigation has found. Credit: Moti Milrod
Lee Yaron
Lee Yaron

It was an ordinary winter day in Tel Aviv, but in a small apartment on Ha’Aliyah street there was great excitement. At the appointed hour, 6-year-old Nahum and his mother Tzega went out the door and walked hand in hand down the noisy street, the seam line between the Florentin and Neveh Sha’anan neighborhoods. Their destination was fairly close, the Druyanov School in Florentin. Just 850 meters away. They enjoyed walking the route.

The event at the school that Friday morning was an open house for kids going into first grade. Just a few days earlier, Tzega had received a phone call informing her that this is where her son would attend school in the coming years. Her hopes were coming to pass. And during that visit to the school, they grew. The faculty and staff described many of the school’s wonderful attributes, like the hydroponic garden, the “sustainability room” and the art room. Towards the end of the day, one of the teachers gave out a gift to the future first-graders: a pencil, dice and a page with letters. “This is a souvenir,” she said. “You can play with it at home.”

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Almost three years have passed since that morning in January 2018 and the modest gift is the only souvenir Nahum has left from going to school with Israeli kids. Five months after that morning, his mother, an asylum seeker, was told the dream would have to be shelved. Her son would not attend the nearby Druyanov School. She was informed he was assigned to the Keshet School on Hamasger Street, 1.6 kilometers away. “They said they made a mistake. I asked them – why? My son isn’t good enough? They said that’s just the way it is,” she recalls.

A random error? That’s far from the truth. A Haaretz investigation has found that the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality is sending hundreds of children of asylum seekers and migrant workers to schools designated just for them, in which there are no Israeli children. The educational standards there are often different too. Nahum, now in third grade, still doesn’t know how to read and write.

Keshet is one of two new schools on dreary Hamasger Street. Next to it is the Gvanim School. They are similar in size and appearance and located in an area filled mainly with automotive garages and offices. It is not exactly a residential area. This is important considering that geographic distance from the child’s home is supposed to be the main criterion in the city’s school registration zones. Thus these two schools have become a different type of registration zone. What counts is not the distance from home, but the distance from a blue Israeli ID card.

Official figures from the municipality, reported here for the first time, paint a clear picture: 2,228 out of 2,433 children of asylum seekers and migrants (91.5 percent) in elementary school attend schools that are for foreigners only. The 205 others are integrated with Israeli children in seven elementary schools in their neighborhoods, with their number falling within “the permitted quota.”

According to the city’s education administration, the ratio of foreign children in a school may not exceed 30 percent of the student body (in keeping with the Education Ministry’s policy in other cases of integration). If that quota has already been met, the foreign child is likely on his or her way to one of the designated schools. For the 450 Israeli schoolchildren who live in the Hatikva, Neveh Sha’anan and Shapira neighborhoods, the result would be different even if they encountered the same situation. They would only hear about Gvanim (“Shadings”) and Keshet (“Rainbow”) in art classes.

Israeli law and Education Ministry directives in this regard are very clear. They long ago stipulated that maintaining separate schools based on ethnic origin is unacceptable. Officially, Tel Aviv city hall agrees that segregation is out of the question. “The municipality insists on registration by geographical area and not by skin color,” city officials responded when queried, adamantly denying that there is any segregation policy. “There is no school for the children of foreign workers and asylum seekers. There is a school for the Hatikva and Neveh Sha’anan neighborhoods. … The registration and school assignment policy in the city is the same for everyone.”

But the numbers and the personal stories aren’t the only things indicating that the city does in fact segregate these schoolchildren. Haaretz has also obtained recordings in which city officials sing a different tune – explaining not only why segregation exists but why it is necessary.

“There’s a huge amount of communal complexity in the city of Tel Aviv, when it comes to a foreign population,” admits Sagit Shemesh, deputy director of elementary education. “Communities in the south of the city are exclusionary and don’t let them attend the regular schools. This is basically why we built schools that are for the foreign population.”

Shemesh, whose responsibilities include overseeing transfers between schools, made these comments in a conversation this past summer. “Why are the kids separated?” an upset mother, an asylum seeker, asked Shirli Rimon, director of the city’s education administration last year. On a recording of that exchange, Rimon replies matter-of-factly: “Because there’s no room in the schools.”

The Compulsory Education Law applies to every child over age 3 who has lived in Israel for more than three months (regardless of his official status or how he is listed in the population registry). Additionally, the Pupils’ Rights Law prohibits differentiation in school registration on the basis of nationality, legal status or ethnic origin. Just a year ago, in December 2019, as part of the ministry’s instructions for preventing racism in the school system, the instruction was given that “when making school assignments, the authorities must work to create a blend of students, with an emphasis on fostering integration.”

The issue of separate education for the children of asylum seekers has frequently been a focus of attention. A series of rulings in the last few years – in Eilat, Netanya, Petah Tikva and elsewhere – left no room for doubt: The children of asylum seekers are to be integrated in mixed schools. The Petah Tikva case is the most recent. Just last month, the city was compelled to pledge in District Court that asylum seekers’ children would be integrated in its schools “in such a way that there will be no separate frameworks for children from foreign countries and for Israeli children.”

Attorney Haran Reichman of Haifa University’s Clinic for Law and Educational Policy is well-acquainted with this subject. He took the lead in pursuing the petitions against the Netanya and Petah Tikva municipalities. Now he is working on the Tel Aviv case. Having already sent the Tel Aviv Municipality dozens of inquiries regarding individual instances of this kind of discrimination, last month he turned things up a notch. He and Tal Hassin of the Association for Civil Rights in Israel presented the municipality with a demand before filing a petition against the city. Representing the Forum of Parents’ Committees for the Children of Asylum Seekers in Tel Aviv, they wrote that “the segregation policy in education that is in practice in the city must cease.” And that “the existence of separate schools and kindergartens for the children of foreigners and for Israeli children is illegal, gravely harms the foreign children and their parents’ right to education, equality and dignity, and contravenes a ruling of many years’ standing that prohibits separation in education based on ethnic origin and race.”

Four schools in Tel Aviv are being used to facilitate this segregation: Keshet and Gvanim on Hamasger Street, Hayarden in the Hatikva neighborhood and Bialik-Rogozin in Neveh Sha’anan. The latter is the oldest and best known of the four, practically a symbol of the neighborhood that stretches between Ha’Aliyah Street and the new Central Bus Station, an area in which 98 percent of the children who live there are foreigners. It’s no wonder that all 430 of the elementary school students on campus (where there is also a high school) are the children of asylum seekers and migrant workers. In this sense, the school population does match the neighborhood demographics and satisfies the city policy on registration in the nearest school.

While in Neveh Sha’anan, many of the pupils in the local school (Bialik-Rogozin) are residents of the area, the story is more complicated in the Hatikva neighborhood. Two elementary schools operate on each side of Hatikva Park. One is Hagalil, the other is Hayarden. At Hayarden, all 550 students are children of asylum seekers and migrant workers. At Hagalil, there are fewer children and more variety: Of the 323 students, 67 (21 percent) are children of asylum seekers.

The municipality says Israeli children only register for Hagalil, and they are joined by a limited number of foreign children, so as not to spur a “flight” from the school by Israeli parents. Addressing this issue, Rimon says, “If I reduce the number of Israelis in Hagalil, then there will be a majority of asylum seekers – and there won’t be Israelis there. I’m preserving the school so the neighborhood kids whose families have been there for a long time will have a place they feel comfortable going to school.”

Drop-off at Gvanim School in South Tel Aviv, December 2020. Credit: Moti Milrod

She says Hayarden also used to have Israeli children from the area but over the past 10 years it has changed, so that now all the children there are from the foreign community. This was no accident. “The African children look different from the other children,” she says. “In the end, color encourages racism.”

What happens when Hayarden is full and the “quota” at Hagalil is filled? Then the remaining neighborhood children are sent to the familiar addresses on Hamasger Street – the Gvanim and Keshet schools.

Rimon is not the sole person in charge. Mayor Ron Huldai holds the education portfolio in the municipality. Several sources in the municipality say Huldai is aware of the school segregation and has approved the practice. “Time after time, Huldai, with some justification, boasts that his city is a stronghold of liberalism and openness, and he’s waged some very public fights against anti-democratic tendencies in the education system,” Reichman says.

There’s another issue, too, one that should be central in any discussion of education: the level of studies at the schools for children of asylum seekers. “I hear from parents in these schools about the boys and girls being in a bad way,” says one official. “We're talking about a very low level of education, about older boys and girls who don’t know how to read and write.”

He isn’t the only one concerned. Staffers at the separate schools who spoke with Haaretz described a dire educational situation. Many kids are unable to speak Hebrew properly or write it. The parents are keenly aware of the predicament too. Some tell of an entire fifth-grade class where the kids are still learning to read and write. A city schools official says, “The state of education for the children of asylum seekers today is nothing less than a catastrophe. Children get to third grade and can’t hold a pencil. Children who were born in Israel, and will probably live here for many years, speak broken Hebrew and can’t utter a complete sentence.”

And if that weren’t enough, a recent report published by the Garden Library for Refugees and Migrant Workers and Assaf – Aid Organization for Refugees and Asylum Seekers in Israel warned of serious developmental and educational gaps among asylum seekers’ children in the kindergartens and elementary schools. “Segregation is hurting their ability to learn the Hebrew language quickly and properly,” the report says. “Also, segregation contributes to the parents’ feeling of alienation and thus also detracts from the parents’ involvement in their children’s education, which hurts the children’s motivation to succeed; segregation increase the risk that these children will drop out of the school system and take up risky behaviors and leaves them exposed to the manifestations of racism that are directed toward them in the public arena, without appropriate engagement by the education system.”

The solution is not simple – integration and absorption of these children in all the city’s neighborhoods, in small groups. Tel Aviv once ran such a pilot: Starting in 2009, 120 children of asylum seekers were transferred to 10 schools in the north of the city. The initiative did not last long. It was an abject failure, Rimon says.

“This kind of integration failed wherever it was tried, in Israel and everywhere else,” she says. “You take kids who are so weak in school, who also look different, and put them in such strong neighborhoods – it’s always going to be looked at askance. They always take the weak to the strong and the weak student is the one who comes out the loser.” The municipality’s official response was similar. “When the number of asylum seekers’ children in the city was much lower than it is today, it was possible to try this ‘educational experiment’ – which didn’t work.”

However, outside city hall, there are also some who feel the pilot was a success, such as Dafna Lev, who headed the municipal education administration from 2006-2016. “I know about a lot of relationships that were created, and parents in the north who supported these children socially,” she says. “Dispersing these children contributed to all the veteran populations – in the south and north – and of course to the children who were welcomed with love in all the schools.”

The Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality says, “The city is grappling alone with tens of thousands of migrants and refugees whom the government abandoned in Neveh Sha’anan and the surrounding area, while it refuses to recognize them and their needs. Faithful to the values of humanism that say every human being is entitled to the highest level of public services, the Tel Aviv-Jaffa Municipality established a diverse system to handle asylum seekers, refugees and foreign workers in which it takes pride. This system relies on a municipal budget of tens of millions of shekels annually, and primarily upon hundreds of dedicated municipal employees who provide education, medical, welfare and social aid services at the highest level.

“If life were a Hollywood movie, the members of the foreign community and their children would be spread among all the neighborhoods and towns in Israel and enjoy the many opportunities that Israeli society can offer its people. But in the actual daily reality in which we live, these foreigners live in a few specific neighborhoods around the old bus station, and like all the children in the city, they also attend schools near their place of residence. We indignantly reject the attempt to ascribe hidden motives to this simple reality of school registration.”

Following the publication of this story in Hebrew, parents decided to take action. About 500 Israeli parents from Tel Aviv wrote to Mayor Ron Huldai to protest the segregation of children of asylum seekers and migrant workers from Israelis in the city schools and asked that these children be integrated in their children’s schools. Also, dozens of teachers from the Gymnasia and Ironi Daled high schools in Tel Aviv have organized a protest on the matter for next week. Gymnasia principal Ze’ev Degani also announced that next week dozens of students from Keshet, one of the schools on Hamasger Street that is filled solely with asylum seekers’ children, will begin coming to the Gymnasia once a week for several hours of art subjects together with the Gymnasia students.

In their letter, addressed to Huldai and Education Administration chief Shirli Rimon, the parents said they not only objected to exclusion, they want integration: “We, mothers and fathers, residents of Tel Aviv-Jaffa, were horrified to read the reports about the Tel Aviv Municipality’s policy of separating Israeli children and asylum seekers’ children, of separating white children and black children in the kindergartens and elementary schools. We believe that this segregation of children is a black stain on our city’s educational heritage.”

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