Parents and right-wing activists took to the streets on Wednesday in two south Tel Aviv neighborhoods that are home to large numbers of mainly African asylum seekers and migrant workers to demonstrate against the admission of their children to the neighborhoods’ schools.
The parents protesting in Kfir and Yad Eliyahu, two southeast Tel Aviv neighborhoods, were flanked by a group of right-wing activists helmed by Sheffi Paz that has long sought to deport asylum seekers, continually foisting blame on them for the area’s myriad of social issues.
Parents of Kfir School students are railing against the admission of eight asylum seekers’ children to first grade on the grounds that the children live outside the school’s enrollment zone, and have announced that in protest, they will not send their children to school when classes resume on Wednesday. The parents have clarified that they do not take issue with the continued enrollment of 25 of the school’s 330 students who are the children of foreign workers and who reside in the school's enrollment zone.
Avi Tal, whose two daughters attend the school, alleged that the municipality has been “steering” foreign students to the school for years because they live in the neighborhood and in the process has changed the school’s character to the detriment of long-time residents’ children. A municipal official said in response that it is not possible to “steer” children to a specific school because enrollment is based on each school’s enrollment zone.
In the case of the eight new students at Kfir, the official said that their parents had selected the school because it is located in their neighborhood and the school they are zoned for is at capacity. The Kfir school is not an exception to the rule: Other schools have also absorbed students who live outside their school’s respective enrollment zones.
As reported by Haaretz about a year ago, 91.5 percent of the children of asylum seekers attend one of four schools in which there are no Israeli students whatsoever. This month, hundreds of asylum seekers filed a petition via the Association for Civil Rights in Israel and the Clinic for Law and Educational Policy at the University of Haifa challenging the Tel Aviv municipality’s school enrollment policies for their children.
In response to the petition, the municipality said that students are placed in schools in accordance with residency-based enrollment zones, subject to available space and parents’ right to appeal.
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Notably, 54 of the 100 requests filed by asylum-seeker parents to reassign their incoming first grade children to another school involved a request to place the children in schools where all of the students are foreign nationals.
Despite the municipality’s effort to limit the number of foreign students to 30 percent at schools outside of two south Tel Aviv neighborhoods, Hatikva and Neve Sha’anan, where many of them live, parents of Kfir students remain concerned over changes in the composition to the student body. The city refers to the 30 percent benchmark as a “tolerance index” for schools attended by diverse population groups. But parents are convinced, based on experience, that “the city can’t be believed.”
According to figures that the municipality provided in response to the court petition, the percentage of foreign students among elementary students at public schools in three south Tel Aviv neighborhoods are as follows: Neve Sha’anan – 92 percent; Shapira – 72 percent; and Hatikva – 84 percent.
“I’m in favor of integrating them, but it’s a matter of numbers. I won’t send my child to a school where he’s the only Israeli child,” said Tal, whose two daughters are at Kfir. “Do you know what it’s like to bring a kid into second grade who can’t speak or write and doesn’t understand the language? They put him into a classroom and say, ‘Go ahead, let’s integrate. What is he supposed to do? And we, for our part, have a sense that our children are regressing in their studies.”
Some Israeli parents in Tel Aviv have been calling for foreign children to be evenly distributed across the city’s schools and not just in south Tel Aviv. “If you want to give them an opportunity in the country, and they are entitled to an opportunity, you also need to send them to the north of the city,” said one mother, referring to an area with many of Tel Aviv’s wealthiest neighborhoods.
It seems that the municipality would also prefer a different, more egalitarian distribution of asylum seekers’ children, but for reasons having to do with principles and budget, object to an arrangement of transporting children to schools far from their homes.
“It would be great if foreign residents’ children would live all over the country, but the government brought them to south Tel Aviv and then disappeared,” the director of Tel Aviv’s education department, Shirley Rimon-Bracha, recently told parents of Kfir School students. According to a source in the municipality, "We can offer guidance and support to the schools. The fear of Israeli parents can be understood: they dropped one weakened group on another weakened group."
A major investment made by the Tel Aviv municipality in south Tel Aviv schools is one of the main reasons that parents in that part of the city – Israeli and foreign alike – are reluctant to send their children to schools in north Tel Aviv. Students in south Tel Aviv are entitled to free after-school care, effectively extending their school days until 6 P.M., as well as two hot meals, a psychologist specialized in the needs of foreign children and other resources.
A source close to Kfir School staff said the school is slated to receive an additional several hundred thousand shekels in funding this year to facilitate smaller class sizes, as well as the provision of emotional support to students through various assistance programs, social workers and psychologists. “The staff told the parents that their children are in good hands and knows how to deal with all of the children,” the source added.
The only black kid in class
"All I told him was that he would go to school and be himself," G., a migrant worker whose son will enter first grade at Kfir School next week and is one of the eight children at the center of the conflict, tells Haaretz. "I told him, 'If someone doesn't want you to be their friend, it's okay. Go to whoever wants to,'" she explained.
Recently, she clicked on the link to the WhatsApp group of parents in her son’s new class and broke down in tears. "I saw one of the parents write, 'Is all this noise because of eight children?' To which they replied that if they didn't talk about it now, the foreigners would take over the school. When I saw that, I cried," she said. This week she went to pick up the textbooks from school, leaving her son at home in fear.
For S., a Eritrean asylum seeker, the situation is slightly different. Two of her children are already in school, and this year the third girl will start attending. "My son told me that he has a lot of friends in the class, but that their parents do not like him. He is the only black kid in his class," says S. An activist in the community, Braha Tama, said: "What did the children do to them? Did they steal? Curse? I would expect the teachers to also go out to the media and talk."
An uncomfortable protest
At the beginning of the month, during a protest in the south Tel Aviv Hatikva neighborhood, growing tension was well felt. About half an hour after the demonstration started, a gang of youth, identified as fans of the local Bnei Yehuda soccer league, appeared and sowed chaos. Under their leadership, protesters ran through the streets of the neighborhood "looking for Sudanese," another prominent nationality among asylum seekers.
Ten protesters were arrested and a foreign worker was attacked and pepper sprayed. Ten days later, next to the Kfir school, a kindergarten class attended by foreign workers’ children who are slated to study at the school next year, was set on fire. So far, no suspects have been arrested and the Kfir parents shrug the incident off, claiming that this approach is not theirs.
In one of the demonstrations held Wednesday, many of the Kfir School parents found themselves abandoning the demonstration they themselves had organized. At 7 P.M. several dozen parents and their children held up signs at the gates to the school grounds that brazenly utilized the term preferred by right-wing activists to describe foreign workers and asylum seekers: ‘infiltrators.’ “We will not lend a hand to the further weakening of our neighborhood. We are not the solution to the infiltrators,” read one of the signs.
The parents had initiated the demonstration together with Paz and her crew of deportation-seeking activists, who were participating in another demonstration at the same time in Yad Eliyahu, another south Tel Aviv neighborhood. Even so, when the two demonstrations merged into one at around 8:30 P.M., the protest became uncomfortable for many of the parents.
"Infiltrator terrorism will reach every corner," said Moshe Miron, a right-wing activist who worked on the Likud’s latest campaign and also led the “Traitors are Infiltrators" campaign. Signs carrying the “Traitors are Infiltrators” message stood out in particular, especially those accompanied by an image of skull, the harbinger of death.
One of the mothers, a member of the school’s parent leadership groups, approached the center of the demonstration and argued with Paz about the protest’s message. A few minutes later, the parents decided to leave. It would seem that as afraid as they are of the changing nature of the schools in the area, the parents are also anxious about being labeled "racists."
"This does not represent us," said Efrat, whose daughters attend the Kfir School, "we are leaving." Tal added: "I made a mistake, I do not need them."
When Paz and Doron Avrahami, another right-wing activist, were asked what they thought about the parents leaving in protest, they said: "They went because they do not understand, they do not know what is going to happen to them."
Days before the start of the school year on Wednesday, few parents have agreed to follow-through with the plan to not send their children to school. "We are in negotiations with the municipality," said Olga, whose daughter is in the third grade. But another parent immediately clarified: "Right now, the intention is to strike." Kfir, whose two children attend the school, tried to sum up the parents' position: "It is important for us to say - we are not boycotting the children who will come. It is not from a place of racism, but out of a concern for our children. We are a weak population and they are bringing in an even weaker population. It’s a recipe for an explosion.”
For its part, in response to this article, the Tel Aviv municipality asserted that the prevailing principle is for children to be placed in schools in accordance with where they reside, and that if there are no vacancies in nearby schools, that they be placed in schools no more than 2 kilometers (about 1.25 miles) away from where they live. “The eight students placed at Kfir live in the Hatikva neighborhood, 800 meters [half a mile] away from the school, and were therefore placed at the Kfir School. The director of the education department and her staff met with representatives of the Kfir parents in an attempt to explain the data and considerations, out of a promise that substantial budgetary funds would be invested in the school to provide support for all of the children. Unfortunately, the parents have chosen to strike.”