Posted on March 25, 2008

Ethiopian Activist: Integration Failed, Separate Schools Needed

Or Kashti, Haaretz, March 23, 2008

The children at the Hadarim elementary school in Rehovot have been busy with more than Purim celebrations over the past few days. Tomorrow, in the presence of President Shimon Peres, the school is to be renamed after Ethiopian Jewish leader Yona Bugala, who died 20 years ago.

The plaque to be placed at the entrance to the school, whose student body is 75 percent Ethiopian, describes Bugala as “leader, educator and spiritual father of the Ethiopian community.”

Ethiopian community activists say the school proves the success of a homogenous student body. “Integration has failed,” Roni Akela, head of the educational association Fidel, says. “Forcing integration on students who can’t manage with it and don’t want it only leads to dropouts. We must think differently. Integration is not a sacred concept,” he added.

Akela has been working this year toward expanding what he calls the “Hadarim model” to schools in Netanya and Petah Tikva with high numbers of Ethiopian students.

Hadarim enjoys over NIS 1 million a year in increased funding, which comes from the Education Ministry, the city and local and foreign foundations, and pays for a long school day, lunches and special tutoring programs.

According to Education Ministry figures, 30 elementary schools, eight of which are secular public schools, have 50 percent or more Ethiopian students. In 88 other schools, the rate is between 25 percent to 50 percent.

A total of 18,000 students of Ethiopian origin are in the school system, with 39 percent of them attending state secular schools.

Recent weeks have seen at least two closed-door discussions among activists on the issue of integration in education: One took place as part of the Tel Aviv University Law School program “Law in the Service of the Community,” and the other, in the Education Ministry’s expert think-tank on Ethiopian immigrant absorption, the “steering center for Ethiopian immigration in the education system.”

In the meeting at Tel Aviv University, Akela stood out in his criticism of integration. “In school, the Ethiopian kids don’t connect with the others. In the afternoon they go back to their neighborhoods, and play with each other. So what exactly has integration contributed?” he said. Busing children to schools outside their neighborhoods to integrate them into other schools often makes them late for class, or to miss the bus entirely, he also said.

Akela wants to see neighborhood schools that would be better funded over a period of several years. “I can’t tell parents to move to other neighborhoods,” he says. We haven’t asked for neighborhoods with concentrations of Ethiopian immigrants, but that’s the reality. Now we have to see how to improve their situation. In the name of integration we have gotten dropouts, outright or latent. So instead of sending the kids in buses, we should invest in schools in their neighborhoods and strengthen their self-confidence, starting with elementary school. You can only integrate into the Israeli melting pot from a position of strength, not weakness,” he said.

“There can be no integration when the Ethiopian student hardly gets 45 in math, and when he treats other kids like they’re half gods, and when other kids’ parents are more successful than his, says Noga Wandmanech, another Fidel activist from the Kiryat Moshe neighborhood, where the Hadarim school is located. “When the students are strong, others will respect them,” Wandmanech said.

The Education Ministry did not approve a visit by Haaretz to Hadarim, saying that the staff was opposed to it.

Hadarim closed down in 1997, and reopened three years ago. In the first year, only 20 students registered for the first grade. However, demand has grown, and the school now has two classes for each grade, with 101 children in grades 1-3, after residents were given the option of Hadarim or another school in the city.

Still, only about 20 percent of children of Ethiopian origin attend Hadarim. One explanation is that it is a secular school, while most Ethiopian parents prefer state Orthodox schools. Another possibility is that parents of Ethiopian origin themselves prefer to send their children to a school without a large concentration of students of Ethiopian origin, despite the long bus rides.

Not all activists agree with Akela. Kassahun Wondie, of the North American Conference on Ethiopian Jewry, says “You can’t have schools just for Ethiopian immigrants, because the next step might be separate frameworks in the army, and so on. It’s a big mistake to establish separate schools, and think that maybe integration will come later. I don’t understand, and am surprised at the willingness to establish ghettos. People bring ideas from black people in the United States, but we are different from any other immigration. We are all Jewish, and we are Israelis like anyone else,” Wondie said.

David Meheret, of the Education Ministry’s steering center , said: “I personally believe in integration—a meeting of students of different backgrounds and cultures—as a value in itself, But there are situations that sometimes lead to the feeling that the community wants the integration more than the veteran Israelis.” With regard to separate schools, Meheret says “some people support an ideology at the expense of other children. I have no right to determine where the kids go to school, but the obligation to all the parents to offer all options—Orthodox or secular, in the neighborhood or outside.

An educational researcher at one of the universities, who asked not to be identified, said there was no proof anywhere in the world that homogenous schools of weaker students are successful, and Hadarim’s success is because it is a single school, and cannot be duplicated indefinitely. The researcher said even if the government were to invest in such a system, good teachers could not be found for such schools. “In schools in the U.S. that became all-black, the teaching staff changed within one or two years, were of the same ethnic background, had only a bachelor’s degree, no tenure and were not suitably trained,” he said.