Petah Tikva Schools Ordered to Enroll Ethiopian Students

Education Ministry: Religious schools that refused to admit Ethiopians will accept 48 students.

The Education Ministry announced Monday evening that an agreement to enroll Ethiopian students initially banned from some of the city's schools had been reached following a meeting between Petah Tikva Mayor Yitzhak Ohayon, Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar (Likud) and other Education Ministry officials.

According to the plan, the three private religious schools that refused to admit the students will be ordered to accept 48 Ethiopians, 30 of them immediately. An additional 60 Ethiopian students will be allowed to enroll in the city's other schools throughout the course of the school year.

It was also decided that a committee composed of Education Ministry and Petah Tikva municipality officials would be formed to review the policy of integrating Ethiopian students into the city's schools.

"The agreement that was reached puts into effect the principles we presented regarding the extent of enrollment in the three institutions, and a more egalitarian absorption of immigrant students," Sa'ar said following the meeting. "We will follow-up on the implementation of the agreement."

Earlier Monday, the High Court of Justice ordered the Education Ministry and the Petah Tikva municipality to respond within 48 hours to a petition by Israeli NGO TEBEKA - Advocacy for Equality & Justice for Ethiopian Israelis - that calls for the absorption of Ethiopian Israeli students into the Petah Tikva school system.

TEBEKA demanded that Petah Tikva schools not be allowed to open until they agree to enroll Ethiopian students, as well as a cessation of government funding for schools that refuse to admit Ethiopians.

The court did not address the former demand in its ruling.

Sa'ar (Likud) on Monday slammed a proposed agreement reached between Petah Tikva and local state religious schools regarding the fate of Ethiopian students as having been drafted behind his back.

Sa'ar called the agreement "fraudulent and deceptive" and argued that the agreement lowers by 50 percent the number of students that the three schools has to absorb, in short allowing the schools to avoid absorbing the students.

"Who does this compromise include? It doesn't include the committee of parents, or the state religious schools," said Sa'ar, "This is a deceptive agreement between the city and three schools. In short, we have an agreement that is completely unstable. We still don't know who will be received into which school."

Sephardi Chief Rabbi Shlomo Amar said Monday that students of Ethiopian origin could not be accepted into religious schools in Petah Tikva because of "halakhic reasons," referring to proof of the immigrants' Jewish status.

Sa'ar met with Amar on Sunday night and requested that he check the possibility that the Ethiopian students still not enrolled in schools be sent to secular state-funded institutions. Sa'ar also proposed that Ethiopians assigned to state schools be given lessons in Judaism by religious educators.

Meanwhile, around 200 people protested Monday morning in Petah Tikva against the decision by three local private religious schools to ban Ethiopian students.

The demonstrators, among them activists from the religious Zionist youth group Bnei Akiva and from the Working and Studying Youth Movement, wore shirts emblazoned with slogans such as "Enough discrimination, we are all Jews," and "We want to learn in Petah Tikva."

Demonstrator Uri Kabado criticized Sa'ar for his offer to send the children to non-religious schools.

"This is a democratic state, the parents must have the option of sending their children to the type of education they choose. Sa'ar is trying to get out of his obligations and find a solution but that cannot be done at just any price," he said.

The Education Ministry on Sunday announced that it would cut funding for the three private religious schools in Petah Tikva that refused to enroll Ethiopian students for the 2009-10 school year, which begins on Tuesday.