Tel Aviv Plan to Build School for Asylum Seekers' Children Instead of Park Draws Protests

Critics cite harm to green space, air pollution, needs of local Israeli children

Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg
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גינת לוינסקי, שבשטחה יוקם בית הספר, היום. העבודות צפויות להתחיל בעוד כחצי שנה
Levinsky Park, Tel Aviv. Credit: Tomer Appelbaum
Bar Peleg
Bar Peleg

The Tel Aviv Municipality’s planning committee approved a plan Wednesday to build a school for children of foreign workers in Levinsky Park near the central bus station. It would destroy the only green area in that part of the city.

The park is located in the Neveh Sha’anan neighborhood, whose residents – Israelis of all political stripes, asylum seekers and foreign workers – oppose the move, saying the school will primarily serve the children of adjacent neighborhoods rather than local children.

All the coalition members on the planning committee – including deputy mayors Assaf Harel, Tzipi Brand, Meital Lahavi, Chen Arieli and Reuven Ladianski – voted for the plan because Mayor Ron Huldai imposed coalition discipline on the vote, even though it goes against regulations. City Councilor Shula Keshet, chairwoman of the Neveh Sha’anan neighborhood committee and a member of Harel’s party, plans to appeal the decision to the District Planning and Construction Committee. She is also seeking a repeat vote before the entire city council, but that isn’t likely to change the decision.

The school will have 24 classrooms for foreigners’ children and another six classrooms for special education in a 5,700-square-meter building. The building, along with a planned staging area nearby for work on the light rail, in addition to land needed for the opening of the rail itself, will leave almost nothing of the park.

During the debate on the plan, it was explained that each year Tel Aviv absorbs more than 20 classes of foreign children, so it was decided to build a school to accommodate them on that space. Municipal sources said the building will also host after-school activities for the community. The Levinsky Library, which operates in the park for the benefit of asylum-seekers’ children, will also get part of the building.

In principle it is forbidden to impose coalition discipline on decisions made by the local planning and construction committee, because the municipality and the committee are actually legally separate entities. But although the deputy mayors who are members expressed opposition to the plan at first, they all voted in favor. The only one who voted against it was an opposition councilor from Shas.

Keshet, who is not a planning committee member, came to the meeting to express her opposition. “Would anyone here want to send their children to the largest focal point of air pollution in Israel? Does there have to be yet another harsh decree on the residents here, one of the most scarred and difficult places in Tel Aviv?” she asked.

During the debate, Sheffi Paz, a prominent political activist in favor of expelling asylum seekers from south Tel Aviv, also came to the meeting, but was removed from the room. “South Tel Aviv is like your garbage can. You are discussing the lives of our children,” she called out.

That Paz and Keshet, who are bitter political rivals, seemed to be on the same side of this issue, came up during the debate when a member of the neighborhood committee, attorney Asaf Weitzen, said, “You can’t accuse us of not caring about asylum-seekers’ children. Most of our work is to help them and this school harms them.”

The neighborhood committee says there are plots of land in the Hatikva neighborhood where the school could be built instead. “Half the asylum-seeker families live in Hatikva and no school has been built there for over a decade,” said Dafna Lichtman, who runs the Levinsky Library. The committee was also reminded that designating a school just for foreign children runs counter to Supreme Court rulings and Education Ministry regulations.

The municipality said in response: “Every year there are more than 25 first-grade classes opened in the southern part of the city. The plan to build the schools stems from municipal needs and the obligation to afford area children solutions.” The city added that the plot had for years been the site of the Bialik School, and when that was demolished it was turned into a park “whose existence was possible so long as the plot wasn’t needed for its original purpose.”

As for the coalition discipline imposed on the vote, the city said, “Members of the committee were asked to represent the planning, public, and municipal interests with their vote, which they did.”

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