Beit Shemesh municipality removes wall between secular, Haredi students

Court rules it does not have the jurisdiction to force ultra-Orthodox out of secular school’s facilities; Education Ministry mulls further court action

Marissa Newman is The Times of Israel political correspondent.

School children wave the Israeli flag as they sit in their school playground in front of a dividing barrier put up by the Beit Shemesh municipality, September 02, 2014. Graffiti  reads "Separation barrier, a disgrace to Zionism" . (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)
School children wave the Israeli flag as they sit in their school playground in front of a dividing barrier put up by the Beit Shemesh municipality, September 02, 2014. Graffiti reads "Separation barrier, a disgrace to Zionism" . (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The Beit Shemesh municipality began dismantling the controversial partition separating the ultra-Orthodox and secular students in the Safot V’Tarbuyot school on Thursday, hours after the Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court shot down an injunction to remove the Haredi students from the facilities due to lack of jurisdiction.

The city council explained that although the court had ruled in its favor, it had decided to remove the barrier as a goodwill gesture, Israel Radio reported.

Earlier, the court permitted the Haredi students of the Mishkenot Da’at school to resume use of the contested facilities beginning Friday.

The Jerusalem Magistrate’s Court maintained that it “does not have the jurisdiction to rule on the request as it was submitted, because it is concerned with public administrative law, and therefore it was discarded for lack of jurisdiction.”

The legal ruling supported the Beit Shemesh municipality’s position against the state-filed injunction, and stressed that the property in question is owned by the city council.

“There is no doubt that this building is owned by the Beit Shemesh municipality. Although it was constructed using state funds, it was handed over to the Beit Shemesh municipality to use for an educational institution, that is, they are the owners of the school building and the right to use it is subject to the municipality,” it said.

“Therefore, the state cannot make claims pertaining to the ownership of the school or the use made of it,” it added.

According to Israel Radio, the Education Ministry will file the case with the administrative courts as soon as tonight.

Earlier this week, the court had ordered the ultra-Orthodox school off the school premises, in a move backed by the Education Ministry. In its ruling, the court said on Tuesday it “prohibits” the ultra-Orthodox institution “from using any part of the Safot V’Tarbuyot School building without a written permit from the Education Ministry,” ordering it to close.

A few days before the school year began, the Beit Shemesh municipality erected a wall within the Safot V’Tarbuyot school to separate it from the parts of the building to be utilized by the Haredi students due to what the municipality said was a lack of sufficient classroom space in the neighborhood. The construction of the barrier, as well as the decision to allow the ultra-Orthodox school access to the grounds without informing the parents of the secular students of the decision, caused an uproar in Beit Shemesh, exacerbating already strained sectarian ties.

Beit Shemesh Mayor Moshe Abutbul, who is ultra-Orthodox himself, praised the decision on Thursday and appealed to the Education Ministry to throw itself behind the court order.

Current Bet Shemesh mayor Moshe Abutbul (Photo credit: Flash90)
Current Bet Shemesh mayor Moshe Abutbul (Photo credit: Flash90)

“The judge understood the true picture, that in fact apart from the two sides arguing here, the Beit Shemesh municipality and the Education Ministry, there is a third side here, that is the innocent little girls who are forced to learn in the street,” he said. Abutbul called on the Education Ministry to “pull itself together and cooperate with the municipality for all populations living in the city.” The mayor said he is “committed to all the dear children of all the sectors.”

Earlier this week, protests erupted after a floor for the building was separated for use by the Haredi school by city construction workers who erected an 8-foot-high wall down the middle of the schoolyard.

Many parents of the secular school kept their children home from school on Monday due to the controversy, with others demonstrating outside 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.”

Beit Shemesh city hall announced recently that female ultra-Orthodox students would be allowed to use empty classrooms in the secular school, and said the structure had the capacity for 500 students — but only 140 are enrolled.

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 Abutbul last year was recalled due to fraud allegations, though he won a second round as well against secular challenger Eli Cohen, leading to some calls to split the city in two.

Yifa Ya’akov contributed to this report.

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