Children of the Ethiopian Community and the Educational System
By Mebratu Meshasha*
“Integration in education is a way of discriminating against Ethiopians and other weak populations without admitting as much”
"I was born in Ethiopia and I don't have a birth certificate”, Sarah told the representative of the private school, when pressed to present her birth certificate and national identity card along with that of her mother, in order to arrange a date for her daughter’s entrance exam.
“We do not accept Ethiopians here, we hardly accept Russians”, the representative called to explain the following day.
Eve (pseudonym), daughter of Sarah and Meir (also pseudonyms), a young academic couple, is joining first grade this year. The nursery teacher recommended one of the city's private schools that would suit their child’s talents. Sarah and Meir insisted that their daughter do the tests and that the decision whether to accept her to the private school or not be based solely on her results.
“The young girl was tested and her results received compliments from the deputy headmistress. The file was passed on to the administration," Sarah recounts. "After two weeks of waiting for an answer I called the school. They told me to bring proof of our Jewish identity".
Sarah approached Rabbi Yosef Adana, the head rabbi of the Ethiopian community, and forwarded his affirmation to the school. But the school refused to recognize the authority of the Ethiopian rabbi and requested that the family undertake formal religious conversion. Sarah understood that even if the family were prepared to commence with conversion, the final date for enrollment would elapse before they had completed the process and therefore they would not be able to enroll Eve in any case.
Sarah and Meir turned to the Ministry of Education, which dispatched a letter requesting that the school accept the young girl, but to no avail. The school is a private institution and, though financed by the Ministry of Education, it is not accountable to the ministry’s sanctions, financial or otherwise. Registration closed and Sarah enrolled her daughter at another school where scholastic attainments are considerably lower, and where approximately ninety percent of the students are of Ethiopian origin. "It is quite unacceptable that my daughter is not receiving the highest level of education she deserves," Sarah said. "Do you have to be white in order to get a good education for your children?”
Eve’s story illustrates the sort of common occurrence that does not make it to the press and to which no suitable solution is offered.
The wave of Ethiopian immigration since the beginning of the 1980s has been plagued with complications, mainly of a religious and economic nature. The community’s objection to rabbinical re-conversion to Judaism necessitated creative solutions. One was to consign the community's children to the National Religious education system, with a small portion of the children being allocated to the Haredi education system (the most theologically conservative form of orthodox Judaism), thus creating yet another front in the ‘religious war’. Many children of Ethiopian descent are not accepted to certain schools because they are not considered Jewish by the administration of these institutions. In this war the main casualties are the children.
2008 brought a different approach to the problem. If until now the community has fought for its right to be integrated into the education system at all costs, this year support for segregation has become audible, as the community asks, “What has integration done for us?”
The Integration vs. Segregation Debate & Hidden Decentralization
The separation of two young Ethiopian girls from their class in Petach Tikva and the implementation of an alternative method of education tailored to Ethiopian youth in Rehovot's ‘Hadarim Yonah Bugla’ School, sparked public protests. Media attention triggered debate, in which experts and opinion columnists discussed the pros and cons of integration vs. segregation, and the issue became decidedly confusing.
The question is does the Ministry of Education uphold a unified policy that obligates all schools?
Though the Ministry of Education asserts that integration is a priority, there is a vast discrepancy between this claim and the way it is actually implemented in schools. Integration policy has not been granted a legal basis by the Ministry of Education, but rather derives from a 1968 Knesset ruling based on a general recommendation made by the parliamentary committee investigating the structure of elementary and secondary level education in Israel. The principal of integration was gradually introduced and reinforced over the years due to endorsement by the Ministry of Education and the High Court of Justice that advocated it as a central social value. Educational policy aspired to minimize the gap in scholastic achievement between diverse socioeconomic groups in order to establish a unified collective national identity.
Nonetheless, research findings produced by the Knesset's Center of Information show that, because schools practice homogenous grouping based on academic achievements and socio-cultural background, segregation does in fact exist within the school framework. Furthermore, a 1993 report aimed at evaluating government policies indicates that, contrary to Ministry of Education's instructions, in only approximately 26% of middle schools in the state-religious system student are selected for difrent streams; vocational training or core subjects that offer better opportunities such as university entrance. This is especially significant for the Ethiopian community because 60% of all Ethiopian children are enrolled specifically in this education system.
In 2006 Nathan Bulga appealed to the High Court of Justice, demanding that the Ministry of Education abandon its policy regarding ethnic quotas in schools, particularly the rule laid down that the number of Ethiopian children in any school could not exceed 25%. Constitutional concession on this issue gave rise to the phenomenon apparent today, where in certain areas of the country with a large concentration of Ethiopians, many regional elementary and middle schools have a majority of Ethiopian pupils.
FIDEL (Association for Education and Social Integration for Ethiopian Jews) supports extracurricular activities for the community. Their programs attempt to provide the community’s children with equal educational opportunities. Though FIDEL’s Roni Akala is basically in favor of integration, he does endorse ethnic self-segregation in schools where integration has obviously not worked. “I believe in strengthening children within an environment that is familiar to them," he says, and emphasizes that, in order to put together an effective learning environment for these children who attend schools with a high concentration of Ethiopians, it is imperative to engage highly trained professionals, bring advanced equipment to school campuses and nurture arts education and a spectrum of other activities to encourage the schools to grow into a high quality communal institution.
Head of the Department of Education Policy and Management at Tel Aviv University, Dr. Dan Gibton, maintains that the process of decentralization is an inherent part of the segregation trend that has surreptitiously taken place over the past 30 years, contrary to the official line on educational reform and integration.
Yossi Yona, professor in the Department of Education at Ben Gurion University, feels: “In Israel the existence of racism and unequal opportunities for Ethiopians is denied”. In his opinion “nobody wants to provide a real solution to the problem. Integration in education is a way of discriminating against Ethiopians and other weak populations without admitting as much. A situation is created in which the strong race ahead and the Ethiopians lag behind. No matter what the community does, it can’t win. When they are prepared to give up their identity in order to fit in, they are unwanted, yet their requests for segregation are not accepted” because it means handing over power and resources.
The article was first published in Horizon Magazine (Autumn 2008), Israel Association for Ethiopian Jews (www.iaej.co.il).