Some 2 million Israeli school kids grabbed their backpacks and headed back to school Monday, as a fraught summer closed with a mostly calm return to studies.
The opening of the school year in the south of the country had been up in the air until just a week ago, when 50 days of fighting between Israel and Hamas in Gaza ended in a ceasefire.
In the south and around the rest of the country, much of which also suffered rocket fire, the Education Ministry stressed that it would help students work through the effects of the summer’s military operation.
In the aftermath of the Israel-Hamas conflict, which raged for most of the summer vacation, the first several weeks of the school year are to be devoted to activities designed to help returning students process and deal with their experiences over the summer, the Education Ministry said on Sunday.
Also, due to issues relating to incitement and hate speech that became apparent over the summer, the first two weeks of the school year are to focus on “a discourse on solidarity, the importance of the State of Israel and its value,” Education Minister Shai Piron said ahead of the weekly cabinet meeting, which was held in the Hof Ashkelon Regional Council as a show of solidarity with the south.
“Its been a difficult summer for us all,” Piron wrote in a statement published on his Facebook page on Monday morning. The education minister sent special regards to the students in the south, and wished “a year of quiet and peace” to all.
“We will dedicate the first weeks of the school year to the summer and all of its events,” he said. “We will extol solidarity and brotherhood, and together combat racism and its expressions.”
President Reuven Rivlin sent a letter to teachers, commending them for their strength and patience in educating Israel’s somewhat unruly youth and combating sporadic violence and incitement.
“You the teachers occasionally feel at war, alone at the front,” he wrote. “Each of you is a commander of forty opinionated and lively children — you stand firm and motivated in the face of escalating violence from time to time, witness incitement, and sometimes even racism,” the president said.
“In your war, there are no enemies. In your war, if everyone doesn’t win, everyone loses. Your system requires you to be a protective edge of tolerance and moderation,” he wrote.
In the southern communities most affected by the Gazan rocket fire during the conflict, special activities will take place during the beginning of the year to help students ease back into learning after a summer largely spent in bomb shelters. During the war, mayors of southern towns had threatened to delay the opening of the school year over rocket fears.
A total of 2,105,394 students are to begin the school year on Monday, the ministry said. Of these, 149,705 are starting first grade, and 112,750 are starting 12th grade, their last in the state-run educational system.
In the battered south, teachers braced themselves for the difficult questions their students were likely to raise, and in Nahal Oz, the absence of 4-year-old Daniel Tragerman — who was killed by mortar shrapnel on August 22 — was keenly felt.
Tragerman’s kindergarten teacher, Adi Sagi, told Channel 2: “The parents are exhausted by this whole war, and we’re trying to pick up the pieces and help the parents get through this period as much as we can.”
With regard to Tragerman’s classmates, Sagi said that in the past few days, the kindergarten hosted a birthday party “and someone said Daniel was missing.”
“It’s very painful coming from a child — it’s very difficult, but this is what is ahead of us,” she said.
In the city of Taibe, in protest of the deadly shooting of a school principal by a masked perpetrator last week, schools remained shuttered and a citywide strike of local businesses went into effect.
Meanwhile, in Netanya, 600 students and their parents were set to gather outside the Begin elementary school but to stop short of entering, in a demonstration decrying the large classes and the school’s apparent refusal to open another class, the Ynet news website reported.
Similarly, in Jerusalem, the entrance to a school in the Kiryat Moshe neighborhood was covered in chains in protest of the class sizes, the Walla news website reports.
The school year opened a day after large budget cuts to the Education Ministry were announced, but Piron insisted Monday that the cuts would not impair the curriculum in any way, nor the salaries of the teachers. He told Israel Radio that the Education Ministry cuts were not any steeper than those of other ministries.
Around 1,900 students are new immigrants and will be entering the Israeli school system for the first time, the Absorption Ministry said. Of these, 250 will be entering first grade.
Some 14,000 new immigrants of any age have arrived over the course of 2014, the ministry said, mostly from France, Ukraine, the US and Russia. The ministry estimated that in total, there will be some 35,600 immigrant children in the education system this year.