Imagining 2015: Free Preschool Education in Israel - a Cautionary Tale

What might life in Tel Aviv be like in the year 2015?

A little girl, a bright red schoolbag with a pink princess and two excited parents make their way to the preschool for the first day of the academic year. She is their eldest child, three and a half, entering the public school system for the first time. How they have looked forward to this day.

In the summer of 2015 they did not go abroad, didn't even rent a vacation room up north - as they had once, before the girl was born. They spent most of their summer along Tel Aviv's shady boulevards. An entire neighborhood was there on the northern boulevard near their house: parents like themselves, in their late 20s or 30s, with a child or two - high-tech workers, lawyers, television producers and the like, all fearful for their children's future. Every evening, delighting in a passing breeze that slipped in from the sea, they would all sit together and listen to riveting lectures as the kids played in the sand. It was a sweet routine.

Tel Aviv port.
Alex Levac

As they did every year, they also marched occasionally in mass protest demonstrations. Once to the Tel Aviv Museum of Art, and once to Rabin Square. There were terrific concerts there. Aviv Geffen was a regular performer. And they never tired of hearing him. After all, they were Moonlight Children. The girl loved to sit high up on her father's shoulders, and when he grew tired she went back to sitting in her stroller.

She particularly liked the line "The People Demand Social Justice," but knew a variety of other slogans too. And she especially made everyone laugh when she yelled in her high, squeaky voice: "Kindergartens Right Now!"

Life had never been so cheap for a young couple in Tel Aviv. They dispensed with a car, and came to the boulevard on foot. They bought a bicycle for each of them and for the girl, in case they wanted to get to distant Rothschild Boulevard, or the beach. For two weeks they even rented out their apartment at an outrageous price to French tourists. They lived in a tent and thereby saved a whole month's rent. Instead of a restaurant, they made do with sandwiches at the kiosk on the boulevard and iced coffee. Lots of iced coffee. Along the boulevard, the coffee shops were full of parents and children like themselves. Spirits were high, like at a carnival.

But at the end of the summer it was too hot for them. The sand stuck obstinately to their clothes and the girl's curls, even though they tried rinsing it off in the shower at the end of the day. They longed for September 1 and for autumn almost in the same breath. They weren't apprehensive for a moment. They knew, of course, about the chronic shortage of space in Tel Aviv preschools. But they were realistic and aware of themselves and the situation, and kept their cool.

They had no intention of going crazy waiting for an answer from the desired freebie preschool. They could understand the parents who were literally desperate every September for the last three years, when they realized that their outcry in the summer had fallen on deaf ears. And that, come autumn, they were still compelled to pay a fortune for their children's education.

The protest movement had already been dubbed by the press the longest and most consistent protest Israel has ever seen. And even the foreign media sent representatives to cover it every summer. January 2012 was remembered as a touchstone in its history. When the parents watched the press conference with the prime minister festively announcing the Compulsory Education Law for 3- and 4-year-olds, they felt the flutter of history's wings.

They looked at one another excitedly, because they knew that the day was not far off, and when the little one crawling at their feet would reach that age, they would send her without any worries off to preschool. For the past few years, when the girl was with a nanny and then in day care, they paid considerable sums of money. But they knew it was temporary, the horizon was in the offing. And soon they would be able to breath easy. Maybe try to buy an apartment.

But more and more it became clear to them that this had been a mirage, and they returned to the boulevard to protest. Implementation of the new law in Tel Aviv moved at a snail's pace. Tel Aviv suffers from a dearth of buildings. The number of children between the ages of 3 and 5 grows steadily each year, and for their daughter's birth year, there were already 19,000 children who needed a municipal preschool. They knew the figures by heart and kept tabs on every detail. They knew to prepare in advance for registering the girl for preschool. They had a strategy. They joined the Facebook page "Parents Disappointed in Education in Tel Aviv." They wrote blogs, took part in discussions on parents' forums, signed petitions.

But to be on the safe side, they also tried using tricks to infiltrate a municipal kindergarten - as parents in Tel Aviv had done since the beginning of time. To that end they rented apartments in several areas of Tel Aviv . In other words, they resided in the north, but, knowing about the overcrowded preschools there, submitted a fictitious rental contract - which they got from one of their friends - and tried to gain admission to the big cluster of preschools in central Tel Aviv.

But all of this happened before the municipality's agreement with the tycoons. In 2015 it seems that, in Tel Aviv, the rich are embarrassed to be rich. The protest arose again. The young people stopped playing nice. They directed the protest at focused targets. They demonstrated all year round underneath the towers. The strollers, the bicycles and the kids marched from Akirov Towers to the Yoo towers. Around Passover they took over the green lawn in the expanse between the buildings, on the banks of the Ayalon Highway. Lots of kids learned to ride a bike in those days on the paved plazas, and lots of babies breast-fed on the stone benches in the shade cast by the buildings. The occupants of the buildings looked down in fright from the tower windows at the encampment that was erected down below.

When the residents of these towers emerged from the underground parking lot in their comfortable and silent cars, their windshields were pelted with organic tomatoes and eggs. It wasn't pleasant. It took some time, but then the managers of the two tower groups on Pinkas Street came down and spoke to the parents, heart to heart. "We are parents too," they said, "and we too want good education for our children. We identify completely with your protest." It was moving for everyone. But the protesters did not agree to stop the picnic and leave.

One day, however, the buildings' managers arrived with representatives from City Hall and, in front of everybody, from the podium promised to allocate a suitable space with grass to new preschools in every area with towers in Tel Aviv. They even cut a ribbon.

The first harbinger - what luck! - was in the north, near the Yoo towers. And thus, on September 1, the excited parents came with the girl and the red schoolbag to 72 Pinkas Street, to the place that had been allocated for their new preschool - but the preschool was closed.