A plan to allow ultra-Orthodox students to use space in a secular school drew loud protests from parents and politicians, who accused the city of engineering a Haredi takeover of the institution.
Beit Shemesh city hall announced recently that female ultra-Orthodox students would be allowed to use empty classrooms in the Safot V’Tarbuyot school, due to what they said was a severe lack of classroom space in the area.
Tensions were high as the school year began Monday, with both secular and ultra-Orthodox parents gathered at the entrance to the school, in the Ramat Beit Shemesh neighborhood.
A day earlier, a large protest organized by the secular parents left one teacher lightly hurt, Israel Radio reported.
The secular parents received the backing of the Education Ministry, which said in a statement it “vehemently opposed” the measure, according to the Walla news website.
“This is a creeping conquest of the institution whose ultimate goal is closing the school, as Haredim are not capable of learning together with the secular,” Moshe Sheetrit, a municipality board member affiliated with Likud, said.
Sheetrit called on Education Minister Shai Piron to intervene, and accused the decision-makers of “blurring secular identity in Ramat Beit Shemesh Alef.”
The school is the last non-ultra-Orthodox state institution in the largely Haredi enclave, is considered one of the most prestigious schools in the area, and prides itself on its pluralistic character and exposure to other cultures, according to its website.
The city has been home to rising sectarian tensions over the last several years as secular residents claim marginalization by a growing, and in some corners increasingly radical, ultra-Orthodox population.
A highly charged election won by Haredi Mayor Moshe Abutbul last year was recalled due to fraud allegations, though he won a second round as well against secular challenger Eli Cohen, leading some to call to split the city in two.
Responding to the backlash, the Beit Shemesh municipality argued that the ultra-Orthodox residents of the area lacked sufficient classroom space, and said the building housing the secular school has the capacity for 500 students — but only 140 are enrolled.
“As part of the role of the municipality to open the school year and grant all children of the city, of all sectors, a suitable place to learn, the municipality saw fit to take the empty classes in the Safot V’Tarbuyot school grounds and accommodate female students from the ‘Mishkenot Da’at’ school living in that neighborhood, who have nowhere to learn, nor even a place to establish temporary structures,” it said in a statement.
The municipality also stated that many of the secular students commute to the institution from Beit Shemesh proper, “where there is an opposite trend of dozens of empty classrooms,” while the ultra-Orthodox students who live in Ramat Beit Shemesh have nowhere to learn.
The municipality had attempted to allow ultra-Orthodox students to study in the institution in 2009, but the move was barred by then-education minister Gideon Sa’ar, after the parents fiercely opposed it.