There are a few events every year or so that are big enough to be pretty much the only news item covered in a selected day’s print press. Things like wars, elections, large terror attacks, deaths of major figures, and of course, the first day of school. As noted a day earlier, while the return of kids to school may be a run-of-the-mill ritual elsewhere, in Israel, where almost the whole country gets back to hitting the books on the same day, it’s a big friggin’ deal.
As usual, papers’ massive coverage of the yearly phenomenon are a mix of played-out clichés, pabulum-filled columns from public figures, context-less statistics and attempts to wring any actual news out of the usually non-newsworthy event.
For an idea of what that means, one need look no further than the front page of Israel Hayom, emblazoned with a big ol’ “Good Luck” as its main “headline,” accompanied by a ho-hum picture of a few kids with their backpacks on, giving a thumbs up or peace sign. Yedioth Ahronoth’s front page doesn’t do much better with a “New start” headline, and a picture of some other kids getting ready for school, in front of an obligatory “Shalom Kita Aleph” (Hello First Grade) sign.
At least Haaretz makes a bit more of an effort to inject some news into its coverage, leading off with a front page headline (but no front page story) reporting that Israeli high schoolers are doing worse on reading and writing than math, even though the Education Ministry has decided that low math scores are the biggest problem. It’s probably not a coincidence that just below the headline on the front page is a picture of the only kids not returning to school Thursday — a group of some 150 ultra-Orthodox youths whose school does not officially start until after the fall holidays, but who have spent most of the summer learning anyway — given that the lowest matriculation scores occur among their community, where secular studies are shunned.
Educators quoted by the paper, though, point to the low scores as a result of socioeconomic gaps in poorer towns in outlying areas.
“This is the picture of the divisions in Israeli society and between the center and the periphery,” a test evaluator is quoted saying. “There’s a class with an average [test score] of 90, and then exams with inarticulate language, spelling and syntax mistakes, and you wonder if the students come from the same education system.”
Things are much sunnier in the tabloids, though, which are festooned with (likely staged) pictures of happy kids trundling off to class and little in the way of anything interesting to report. Both Education Minister Naftali Bennett and President Reuven Rivlin do double duty, penning (or having ghost-penned for them) two separate columns to go in each tabloid, though neither has much exciting to say.
“As in every year, the first day of school is especially celebratory. It’s filled with a lot of emotions, mixing fears with hopes and sadness over the end of vacation with happiness to meet friends in class again,” Rivlin writes in Israel Hayom, continuing the theme of tribal divisions in Israel that need to be bridged that he has made a centerpiece of his presidency. “The kids marching this morning to school, to their first day in class or kindergarten, are the future of our society. They are walking different paths, but the feelings of the first day is an experience shared by all.”
As if Police Commissioner Roni Alsheich saying earlier this week that all immigrants are criminal suspects wasn’t enough, in Yedioth, Naftali Bennett blames his American immigrant parents for his bad grades in school, saying they spoke to him in English, which gave him trouble in classes, but he was saved by a drama teacher who took a special interest in him and challenged him.
“From my year of experience [as education minister] and many memories from school, I understand that that’s the essence of education,” he writes, as if composing a college essay. “The personal touch, the teacher’s ability to identify strengths of a student and build on them. To give him confidence in his abilities and to grant him the values of giving, love of the land and of the people, patience and friendship. That’s what I see. Personal education.”
Dastardly immigrants also play a central role in the only thing that can be considered a big news story connecting to the first day of school, after Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai went “head to head” (in the tabloids’ words) over a school in south Tel Aviv.
According to Haaretz, the tussle started with Netanyahu’s call for a school in the neighborhood to remain open for children of Russian-speaking immigrants from all over the region, instead of being converted into a school for local “infiltrators” (in Netanyahu’s words) or “east-African asylum-seekers” in (Haaretz’s words), which the city is pushing for.
It’s not like south Tel Aviv loves its asylum-seekers and wants to help, though, as much as that it’s angry over the fact that Netanyahu hasn’t deported them yet or dealt with them in some other way.
“Haaretz has learned that the decision by municipal officials to convert Shevah Mofet, which is located in a neighborhood with a large number of foreign migrants, is being pursued to avoid building a school for the migrants’ children in Levinsky Park near the city’s central bus station, the nerve center of Israel’s community of foreign nationals,” the paper reports, without any sourcing. “The plan at the park called for construction of an elementary school and a high school, each with 18 classrooms, but it would have been built on an area consisting of about half the current area of the park.”
Perhaps ignoring the fact that the school doesn’t serve locals, in Yedioth, Ben Dror Yemini tries to explain that the fight over the school is part of a larger story of what is happening in the working-class neighborhood, where already poor Israelis complain of being overlooked in favor of the many African migrants who have made the area their new home.
“Now city hall is planning an internal educational assassination, the Shevah Mofat school, in order to take in the children of asylum-seekers. This is another milestone on the path of the debasement of area residents. Every school in the area which is not religious is being turned immediately into a school for asylum-seekers,” he writes. “There’s no need to abandon the kids of migrants. We were sojourners in a strange land. The problem is that the result is a blow to equality — when the personal price is only being paid by residents of the south, the gaps grow and the chances of real education are killed.”