In Beit Shemesh, ultra-Orthodox and secular face off over school

Despite court injunction, council in divided city continues to push plan that chopped up academy to provide classrooms for Haredi students

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)

BEIT SHEMESH — The Beit Shemesh municipality on Wednesday refused to back down from forcibly installing an ultra-Orthodox elementary school into an existing secular elementary school, even after the Jerusalem Magistrates Court ruled that the newcomers cannot “[use] any part of the Safot V’Tarbuyot School building without a written permit from the Education Ministry.”

Mayor Moshe Abutbul visited ultra-Orthodox schoolchildren who gathered outside the school to protest their exclusion from the property and distributed candy as their parents held a protest prayer session nearby, Channel 2 reported Wednesday. “I am so sorry you’re out in the hot weather,” Abutbul, who is also ultra-Orthodox, told them. “Every child deserves a desk and a chair, even if the Education Ministry doesn’t support that.”

Tensions have swirled around the building, located in the ultra-Orthodox enclave of Ramat Beit Shemesh, as the new school year began this week.

Secular parents, local politicians and the Education Ministry have spoken out against the use of empty classrooms in the secular school by a Haredi girls school, which some have called a symptom of creeping ultra-Orthodox hegemony in the city.

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

On Tuesday, the Jerusalem Magistrates Court issued an injunction against the Haredi installation, and ordered it to leave the school premises, a move backed by the Education Ministry.

Many Haredi residents in the neighborhood around the school blamed Education Minister Shai Piron (from the centrist Yesh Atid) for trying to stir up trouble and accused him of not understanding the severe lack of classrooms in Beit Shemesh.

Piron, however, strongly condemned the Beit Shemesh municipality for trying continuing to push the plan that is strongly opposed by parents of pupils already attending the school.

“The education system will not accept violence and bullying,” he said in a statement. “Each and every child in Israel has the right to her education, but the answer cannot be unilateral steps, trampling the law and ethics, sneaking into to school at night to build a wall and throwing out teachers’ materials and books.”

“It’s sad for the students, both haredi and secular,” said MK Dov Lipman (Yesh Atid), who was a leader in the Committee to Save Beit Shemesh, a community group dedicated to advocating for rights of Beit Shemesh’s non-Haredi population, before becoming an MK.

“More than anything, this demonstrates a lack of proper planning for the school year. They should have sat down many months ago and said, look, we don’t have enough classrooms. They could have come to a proper resolution instead of breaking into a school in the middle of the night,” Lipman said. “The city woke up very late in the process and did not accept options from the Education Ministry.”

Police stand guard outside the Safot V'Tarbuyot school on Tuesday, September 2, 2014. (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)
Police stand guard outside the Safot V’Tarbuyot school on Tuesday, September 2, 2014. (photo credit: Nati Shohat/Flash90)

The Beit Shemesh municipality claims that the Safot V’Tarbuyot school has four empty classrooms, while Haredi students in the town south west of Jerusalem are suffering from a severe shortage of teaching space.

Lipman said that the school, which is for gifted students, utilizes those rooms for extracurricular activities like music and art, and that the wall dividing the school in half has left the entire school with only one bathroom for male and female students alike.

The fight over the school is the latest in an ongoing conflict between the growing Haredi population, mostly in the newer Ramat Beit Shemesh neighborhood, and the older secular and national religious populations, concentrated in Beit Shemesh.

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.

Lipman said he was initially opposed to the idea of splitting the city. However, after he witnessed Abutbul’s refusal to meet with him or work with non-Haredi city councilors, he changed his opinion and now believes in splitting Ramat Beit Shemesh and Beit Shemesh.

That move would require approval from the Interior Ministry and the Finance Ministry, both of which are studying the idea, said Lipman.

‘Saving unpleasant incidents’

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 parents expressed fierce opposition.

“My girls loved that school,” said Elona, a secular mother of two daughters who graduated from the school three and six years ago respectively.

She lives close to the school and says she loves the neighborhood and has no plans to leave, despite the fact the neighborhood is becoming increasingly Haredi. “They really invest in the school, they invest in the students, the teachers are really wonderful, the classes are high quality, and it really shows the beautiful side of Israeli culture,” she said.

The school places a large emphasis on pluralism and multiculturalism.

“You can’t evacuate a school by force. The Education Ministry made their position clear and that’s that,” Elona said. “What made everyone really angry, the secular, traditional, national religious people, was the violence. There is no reason for violence.”

Teachers and parents who tried to stop the municipality from installing the wall inside the school on Monday were met with armed guards who treated them brusquely, according to Israel Radio. One teacher required medical attention after the protest.

Ultra-Orthodox locals defended the construction of a wall between the two schools Wednesday.

Haredi residents of the neighborhood were bemoaning the fact that the two populations “could not live together in peace,” said Gideon Yafe, a resident of Beit Shemesh for 14 years.

“It’s a shame that some Jews can’t think about other Jews,” he said.

“The wall makes sense, it makes the separation clear and saves any possible unpleasant incidents,” Yafe said, adding that the secular children might “intimidate” the religious girls.

His wife Daniella Yafe, who is a teacher, added that Haredi schools frequently build walls between schools to separate different institutions which share a building.

“My son is in one building and there are three Haredi boys schools there,” she said. “They keep losing space in the courtyard because they keep adding caravans for more classrooms. And also there they have walls.”

“I think it would really be a blessing to allow [Haredi] students to learn there,” said Haya, a mother of six from the neighborhood who declined to give her last name. “It’s showing that we can be united… I don’t understand why [the school] can’t just open their arms to them. Jews should look out for each other, that’s why we have a homeland.”

Haya was also in favor of the wall separating the schools. “They are trying to protect themselves. They don’t dislike them as people, but the irreligious sector has iPhones and other things that can be confusing for our kids.”

Lipman said he hoped the Education Ministry could help come up with a temporary solution, which would likely involve the addition of caravans to a courtyard next to the community center or something similar.

He acknowledged the demographics of the neighborhood have changed, altering the status quo.

The Beit Shemesh municipality claims that because most of the students at the school come from Beit Shemesh proper and not the more religious Ramat Beit Shemesh area where the school is located, the building should reflect the makeup of the community.

“I have no problem with saying, let’s build a new secular building in Beit Shemesh and move the school there, and that way the Haredi students can have these classrooms, but only if we do it in a proper way,” Lipman said.

“There is no doubt that Beit Shemesh has a lack of classrooms, but this is not an issue about a school being Haredi or secular,” he added. “We cannot have a mayor who just goes in and takes a school when he wants.”

Yifa Yaakov and Marissa Newman contributed to this article.

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