Concealed behind the fanfare and ceremonies planned for the start of the new school year is an unpleasant reality: parents and children who face blatant discrimination. It is difficult to gauge the extent of this phenomenon, partly because it dons various disguises. But in an effort to counter it, the nonprofit organization Hakol Hinuch set up a special assistance hotline last week, with backing and legal assistance from various other groups.
"At a time when the Education Ministry is talking so much about values and their significance, it is precisely through caring for the weaker segments of Israeli society that one can express a change in values, and not only through activities and programs that emphasize heroic elements," said the head of Hakol Hinuch, Rabbi Shai Piron, referring to the steps taken by Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar to bolster Jewish and Zionist values at schools.
Despite the hotline's relatively low-key launch, it received more than 80 calls over the last week. Following initial screening, 55 were passed on for further handling.
The complaints involve a wide range of alleged discrimination, whether on the basis of religion, ethnic background, grades or the parents' financial status. They include schools' decisions to accept or reject children (mainly in the ultra-Orthodox system ), government schools that condition acceptance on the child's grades, and even school programs that are only open to children whose parents can purchase computers for them out of their own pockets. What they have in common is that all are against the law.
Moran Gomari and Esther Friedman are two law students who are volunteering at the hotline. Yesterday, they were taking calls at the organization's headquarters in Petah Tikva.
"Discrimination is something that no one likes to talk about, but I have no doubts that it exists," Gomari said. "It is normally explained in other ways, like the children's low grades, or allegedly professional decisions by the school or the local authority. It is necessary to scratch the surface a bit, but then discrimination rears its head."
The two law students collect the complaints and put the data on computer. An attorney reviews the cases twice a day.
Cases in which the courts have already made a relevant ruling, such as illegal payments being demanded of parents, are immediately passed on to one of the groups participating in the project.
Calls that raise fundamental issues or expose new types of discrimination are discussed each evening, and possible responses are formulated - for example, whether attorneys should contact the school principal, the local authority or the Education Ministry.
"We are trying to shatter the view that sees discrimination only through the prism of the ultra-Orthodox or students of Ethiopian descent," said Piron. "Our point of view is much wider, and includes discrimination on the basis of socioeconomic status or grades. All forms of discrimination undermine equality and create social gaps."
"It's the Education Ministry's job to protect the weak," Piron continued. "Every child or parent who calls us should first complain to the Education Ministry, but it does not happen - whether because of the problem of divided authority between the central government and local governments, or because of other considerations, like fear of confronting the ultra-Orthodox community or the well-established secular community."
Piron estimated the cost of operating the hotline, which will remain open until September 16, at NIS 150,000. Most of this is being provided by Hakol Hinuch, supplemented by a donation from the Rashi Foundation.
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