Update: I heard on the radio at around 1 PM today that the Chabad girls’ school, Or Chaya, has refused to accept 5 Ethiopian students. Or Chaya is part of the state religious system. The education ministry said that sanctions will be taken.
I met Yifat Kasai two years ago, when her eldest son entered first grade at my children’s state-religious elementary school. In this interview, she graciously shares her experience making aliyah, her job helping Ethiopian teenagers adjust to Israeli schools, and her thoughts on a Petach Tikva school that has been in the news.
Tell me about your aliyah. I made aliyah from Ethiopia to Beersheva in 1984, when I was six years old. I was the seventh of nine children, and my father had just remarried. Two more children were born here.
We experienced mixed reactions from native Israelis. The social workers and other professionals welcomed us with open arms, but people in the community were not so kind and sent out dogs when we went to school. Until 5th grade, I never walked to school without an adult.
What did you study? After high school I entered the army, then took a year off to decide what to do and eventually got a degree in administration. Most of my siblings also have academic degrees. The three oldest, who were already married when we made aliyah, are part of the religious community like I am. The rest aren’t, but they aren’t completely secular either.
What is your current position? I work at the local religious girls’ junior high school, coordinating a program that serves over 100 Ethiopian girls. The government maintains a similar program in every school with a concentration of Ethiopians.
What is the current controversy regarding the Ethiopians in the Petach Tikah school? Nir Etzion, a state religious elementary school, was serving a strictly Ethiopian population. Activists in the Ethiopian community have been objecting for years but the municipality and education ministry insisted that nothing could be done. Over the summer, the majority of children were transferred to other schools. But a group of parents, mostly new immigrants, wished to remain. So the school opened on September 1, amid protests.
The protests were effective and during the last few days, the remaining students have been transferred out. I don’t know why it has taken so long, and why it was done at the last minute. It’s disruptive for everyone.
What do you think about Nir Etzion? I don’t believe segregated schools should exist. When I’ve attended meetings with administrators from Nir Etzion, they were justifiably proud of their graduates who do extremely well in junior high. But when these children are exposed to the huge socio-economic divide during early adolescence, it lowers their self-esteem. The girls in my program complain that the native Israeli girls are always talking about what clothes and shoes they’ve bought. The children who attended an affluent elementary school also suffer from these differences, like when the teacher asks what they did in the summer. The Ethiopians may have visited grandparents, while the more affluent students visited two foreign countries. But the younger Ethiopian children accept this as the reality. They learn from an early age how to function in Israeli society.
Do you think there is an advantage to being in a segregated school, in that the children don’t suffer from racism or discrimination in school? Yes, but that advantage is more than offset by the distance created between the two communities. The Ethiopians need to acclimate to living among native Israelis, and the native Israelis need to accept the Ethiopans as an integral part of Israeli society.
Two Ethiopian children joined each of my children’s classes this year. Were they from Nir Etzion? Yes, each class in our school took on two additional Ethiopian children. The private religious schools didn’t object as they did two years ago. They were warned in advance that they would face sanctions if they did not accept the children. Mind you, this is not a great hardship for the schools as the Ethiopian children come with generous funding for the many ancillary services they receive. Some of the children from Nir Etzion will attend schools outside of Petach Tikva.
When my older children were in elementary school, I remember sitting outside the class while an Ethiopian mother met with the class teacher. The teacher was screaming at the mother. Yes, that happens. I feel that the level of discrimination against Ethiopians has grown.
Do your children speak Amharic? My husband is also from Ethiopia but while I am a native Amharic speaker, he knows only Tigrigona. We speak Hebrew with each other and with our three boys.
More about Ethiopian integration into Petach Tikvah schools.
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