The Education Ministry’s Sudden Concern for Cultural Roots

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The child of asylum seekers walks into a school in south Tel Aviv.
The child of asylum seekers walks into a school in south Tel Aviv.Credit: Hadas Forush

The Tel Aviv District Court has for the past several months been considering a petition seeking to enable children of asylum seekers to be allowed to attend school outside their enrollment districts. The petitioners and the Tel Aviv municipality came to agreement that roughly 90 students in Grades 1 through 3 who are attending south Tel Aviv schools that don’t have a single Israeli student will be able to be accepted at schools in the center and north of the city on a space-available basis.

>> Education ministry comes out against mixing Israeli and refugee children in schools

But implementation of the agreement depends on arranging busing for the children, which is the Education Ministry’s responsibility. The ministry has chosen to evade the issue by engaging in identity-based acrobatics. Integrating asylum seekers into kindergartens and elementary schools that Israelis attend could do “harm to the cultural and family roots” of the children, it said in its response to the petition. This sudden cultural concern for one of the most disadvantaged groups in Israel engenders disbelief and even ridicule.

If that’s the problem, government authorities have many means to improve the situation and status of foreign nationals in Israel. But instead of taking a position, the ministry opted to take refuge in other issues that have never been mentioned with regard to any other group in society. What matters most is not to address the existing situation.

Integration is “a complicated question that relates to sensitive social issues of stability and security at young ages,” the ministry added. It warned against “unifying cultures in a way that negates and blurs the identity and the community that they come from,” casting major doubt over whether integrating asylum seekers’ children with their Israeli counterparts is even possible (Haaretz, Dec. 19). And doing so would require allocating many hours for individual instruction, training teachers to teach heterogeneous classes and much more, it warned.

Statements such as these were never made in the past about attempts at educational integration aimed at lowering the barriers between different segments of Israeli society. One cannot countenance the ministry’s request for an exemption from its obligation to educate. It’s understood that any encounter between students from different backgrounds involves difficulties, but that’s the ministry’s role.

The principle that separate instruction for a disadvantaged group is neither desirable nor appropriate was the basis for the decision about a decade ago to break up schools where all the students were of Ethiopian origin. The same principle applies to asylum seekers.

In the long run, schools attended only by children of asylum seekers lead to a lack of equality that "justifies" segregation.

The major disparities between children born in Israel to foreign nationals and Israeli citizens aren’t a divine decree but the work of human beings. Education Minister Yifat Shasha-Biton must instruct her ministry’s staff to do everything in their power to reduce these disparities as much as possible.

The above article is Haaretz's lead editorial, as published in the Hebrew and English newspapers in Israel.

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