It was a Wednesday morning, and a group of sixth-graders at Jerusalem’s Efrata School were swabbing out toilets.
Eleven- and 12-year-olds aren’t generally interested in latrine duty. But with around 700 kids using 20 toilets and no cleaning staff on hand, the school commodes required a wipedown before noon.
The school, located in the southern Jerusalem neighborhood of Baka, usually has six or seven custodians on hand. But due to the escalating security situation, the all-Arab cleaning staff was no longer allowed to work during school hours.
Instead, the cleaners, who are hired by an outside custodial service, now work in the late afternoons when school is over for the day.
“We didn’t fire them,” emphasized Barak Chacotay, an Efrata parent who heads the school board. “We sat and thought about what to do, and given that the contractor who handles the hiring had only hired them a month ago, he didn’t know them well, either. So we agreed that they would continue to work, but when the kids aren’t there.”
The school custodian, that sometimes cantankerous character familiar from 1970s TV shows invariably pushing around a bucket on wheels, doesn’t generally exist in the Israeli school system. Instead, the municipalities work with outside cleaning services that vie each year for tenders and then supply minimum-wage-paid cleaners to local schools. Some contractors supply cleaners to six or seven schools; others may work with as many as 20.
In Jerusalem, the cleaners are, for the most part, Arab and female, a situation that has put schools and parents into something of a panic, given a series of knifing attacks in the city and elsewhere, many perpetrated by East Jerusalem Arabs.
Questions about Arab custodial workers in Jewish schools aren’t limited to Jerusalem. The daily Yedioth Ahronoth reported a similar situation at the Amir School in Petah Tikva, while social media threads have been discussing the same story in schools throughout the country.
פרסום ראשון: בעיריית גבעתיים בודקים משפטית אפשרות להחליף את המנקים הערביים בבתי הספר באריתראים
— Matan Hetzroni (@matanhetzroni) October 18, 2015
Matan Hetzroni, a reporter for Channel 2, tweeted about a school in the Tel aviv suburb of Givatayim that wanted to replace their Arab cleaners with Eritrean asylum seekers. Responses ranged from cracks about adding classes in racism to whether the school had considered hiring Jews.
Knesset member Tamar Zandberg from the liberal Meretz party posted on her Facebook page that the decision to fire Arab custodial workers in schools was dangerous and racist, and sent students the message that all Arabs should be feared as potential killers.
“You can’t give in to fear, and you can’t give in to radicalism,” she stated.
In Jerusalem, however, which has borne the brunt of the violence, last week’s attack on an Egged bus in the Armon Hanatziv neighborhood — which killed two and injured eight — became a tipping point. After that attack, parents throughout the city began to voice their concerns about the Arab hired help working in close proximity to their kids.
“The attack happened on Tuesday morning, and boom, boom, boom, parents started saying that we have to fire the cleaning lady,” an Arab woman called Samer, according to Mishael Zion, a parent and spokesperson for the parent security committee at Eitan, a religious public school in Armon Hanatziv.
Much of the initial conversation about Samer first took place in a WhatsApp group for fourth-graders’ parents. The fourth grade is the oldest grade in the school, and its parents are more familiar with the custodial help and school routines.
People immediately took positions, said Zion, and his initial reaction was to not get involved.
“I don’t pick fights on WhatsApp,” he said. “But I learned that the only way to engage is to recognize the fear and danger and then also say something from the moral perspective. What I’ve learned to say in more than 25 conversations about this is that it’s scary and dangerous but we can’t lose our moral backbone at a time like this. If you say it from a place of strength, that resonates with people.”
Zion, a rabbi and Jewish educator, had volunteered to be on the school’s security committee after a round of unrest last fall. This time, however, the violence struck very close to home.
“I had a moment of realization after the bus attack that we can sit and scream at the television and at Bibi [Netanyahu] for not doing his job well, but suddenly this isn’t a national problem but a problem in my neighborhood,” he said, “and we’re in the middle of the vortex.”
Eitan, Zion’s children’s school, is located in Armon Hanatziv, near two Arab villages, Jabel Mukaber and Sur Baher, which have become an epicenter of the latest round of violence and terror attacks.
He and his fellow PTA members talked with parents from each class, and then with their fellow board members. They found two sets of strong voices: Those who said that Samer couldn’t stay at the school despite the institution’s humanist and liberal outlook, and those who said she had to stay because it was the right thing.
There were parents with right-wing politics who said that Arabs can’t be fired just because of a tense security situation, noted Zion, while some of those on the left had more knee-jerk, protective reactions.
Samer turned down a request to comment for this report.
At Mekor Haim, another religious public school in southern Jerusalem, parents felt concerned because the Arab custodian was new to the school, and a mostly unfamiliar figure in the hallways, said Avital Campbell Hochstein, a parent on the school board.
“Parents are afraid, teachers said they’re afraid and a few parents went to the principal and said they weren’t willing to have an Arab cleaning person,” said Campbell Hochstein. “And now there are two conversations: The practical one of how to get the cleaning done — some parents suggested that each family donate NIS 20 to augment the cleaning budget — and the other, theological side of what kind of educational message are you giving your children about how to deal fairly and about making generalizations?”
For all the schools, the first stop had to be the municipality, which acts as a middleman between the schools and cleaning contractors.
At City Hall, the conversation was solely about security, said Campbell Hochstein.
“The response from the municipality was that unless the security forces said it was unsafe, the cleaners should keep coming to work,” she said. “I thought that was a good answer.”
A Jerusalem municipality spokesperson offered the city’s official response:
“In the city of Jerusalem, there have always been Jews and Arabs working together, ‘shoulder to shoulder,’ in a variety of essential jobs and professions and services, in the city’s development and upkeep such as hospitals, emergency services, firefighting and other. There is no reason to make a sweeping decision that wouldn’t allow Arab workers to do their job and most do steady reliable work.”
Neither the municipality nor Sikkuy, The Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality, could offer data on the number of Arabs employed in custodial positions in Jerusalem.
Still, given the wave of attacks, the city decided to halt work being done by city water company Gihon on the pipes under the street next to the Efrata school, given the number of Arab workers making their way each day to the site, said Chacotay of the Efrata school board.
“Why deal with it now? Why have the headache?” he asked. “You want to narrow the access. Is it 100 percent secure? No, but that’s what you have.”
Shira Katz Vinkler, CEO of the Yerushalmit Movement, a nonprofit organization that works to develop Jerusalem as a pluralistic and inclusive city, said her group was working on establishing a sense of routine during these times of tension.
“Jerusalem reflects Israeli society and how we deal with a situation and this issue says a lot about it,” said Katz Vinkler. “Our job is creating a sense of routine, and to lower fears and tension and create a sense of normalcy.”
The organization set out to establish afternoon activities in different neighborhoods each day of the week, said Katz Vinkler, offering parents a safe place with activities for kids and a chance to talk about their anxieties.
At the schools, however, other kinds of decisions had to be made in order to allay parents’ fears. At Eitan, the parents called the coordinator of the cleaning services, who told them that with an hourly budget of NIS 25 ($6.50), they would have a hard time finding someone else to work for that rate.
“All of her workers are from East Jerusalem,” pointed out Zion.
Firing Samer wouldn’t have been legal, Zion learned from the Sikkuy organization.
“They told me, ‘You bet we’d get involved and prevent it,’” he said.
Gili Rei, a staff member at the Sikkuy offices in Jerusalem, said that firing an Arab worker over security concerns would be illegal and hasn’t happened yet during the latest round of violence.
“We haven’t seen examples of that,” said Rei.
Sikkuy co-executive directors Rawnak Natour and Ron Gerlitz sent letters Monday to Interior Minister Silvan Shalom and Attorney General Yehuda Weinstein, demanding they cancel any instructions affecting the employment of Arab workers.
According to the Sikkuy directors, municipal leaders in five towns had told Arab staffers to do their work in the early morning or later afternoon, a violation of their rights and conditions.
At Eitan, a school board vote ultimately decided the issue, as parents voted 10 to 4 to keep Samer, but decided against having her lock up the school each afternoon as she had done until then.
Prior to the vote, the school principal — who has nothing to do with Samer’s employment at the school, noted Zion — made a point of taking Samer around to each classroom, said Zion, introducing her to the students as a member of the school staff and making sure they knew who she was.
“She has a name, she’s a person, she lives in Abu Tor with her father and two kids, and she’s scared herself,” said Zion.
Now they’re hoping she won’t be too scared to travel to the school, located a short bus ride from her own home.
“In times of crisis, invisible people become visible,” said Zion, pointing to Yan, the school’s security guard, as well as Samer. “Making sure that Samer has a job has been my job for the last few days.”