On the Street: Teachers Protest Injunctions In the Hotel: Olmert, Bar-On Refuse to Budge

Two long discussions on education were held yesterday at the Israel Business Conference organized by the Globes newspaper in Tel Aviv: one took place in the conference room of the David Intercontinental Hotel, among the politicians and business people gathered there; the other was on the streets around the hotel, among a thousand or so striking secondary-school teachers who came to demonstrate against the government and the back-to-work orders it had the National Labor Court issue. The injunctions go into effect this Thursday. The connection between the two discussions was slight, which only underscored the great distance between the two worlds.

The first demonstrators arrived at 9 A.M. at the plaza outside the hotel, dressed in the red and white colors that have accompanied their campaign since it began, exactly two months ago. The stream of protesters grew as the time drew near for Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's speech at the convention, taking up one side of the street, then filling the other, and eventually nearing the hotel entrance, which had been blocked off by police barriers.

Amid the various protest chants, one slogan stood out: "This struggle cannot be stopped," the teachers shouted, "We have to go on fighting, we have to go on fighting."

The insistence on reducing class sizes and restoring slashed study hours, which typified the teachers' protests until last week's court order, has been replaced by a sense of insult. Many demonstrators insisted they will not return to school on Thursday.

"There are moments when every teacher must obey his conscience and not a court order," Shuki Einhorn, a teacher at ORT Melton in Bat Yam, said. "True, we are not a public that violates orders, but now we are at war," added Meital, a teacher from the Rabin High School in Mazkeret Batya. "This is not an easy decision, but it is even harder to return to work under injunctions."

Inside, Olmert and his finance minister, Roni Bar-On, heckled unsuccessfully by teachers in the audience, repeated their positions - they understand the teachers plight, but problems accrued over years cannot be fixed in a day - and firmly refused to divulge details of the government's pledge to reduce overcrowding in classrooms and restore instruction hours. There was no real change in the government's position of two weeks ago.

"There are constant attempts to divert the discussion from the arena of labor relations into the arena of the government's education policy," Bar-On said. "The court also holds that this line detracts from the ability to end the crisis. We will lead a reform in education, but not by formulating 'an emergency plan' under strike pressure."

Olmert was full of empathy for the strikers - up to a point. "The teachers are right when they demand an improvement in their wages and especially in rehabilitating the status and honor of their profession. And they have a solid basis for expecting the government to work on these matters quickly and determinedly," the prime minister said. "The government is right when it insists on a general reform in the school system, and not settling for wage hikes that might undermine wage agreements in the economy."

Later he added that "the teachers outcry touches my heart. I know how hard their mission is. It must be improved. The teachers organization has managed to touch the most sensitive spots in Israeli society, and to arouse spontaneous sympathy among many. Now they must finish the negotiations and return to school."

Afterward, the teachers union leader, Ran Erez, went outside and told the protesters: "Instead of this government serving the country, it wants the people to serve it. We do not agree with that way, and so we shall go on fighting."