by Lisa Goldman
When the children of south Tel Aviv head back to school on Tuesday, kindergarteners will attend facilities that are segregated by race. The children of asylum seekers from sub-Saharan Africa will go to their kindergartens and all the other kids will go to their own. As of this year, the municipality of Israel’s most liberal city decided that separate-but-equal for three-to-six year olds was the way to go—in 2013.
According to a report published by Ynet (Hebrew edition), the city built the new preschools for black children after Jewish-Israeli residents of the inner city area threatened to keep their children at home rather than allow them to learn how to count, fingerpaint and play on the swings alongside their peers from Eritrea and Sudan.
The south Tel Aviv neighborhoods of Shapira and Hatikvah have for decades been one of the city’s two most deprived areas (the other is southern Jaffa). Home to a population of mostly low income Mizrahi Jews (a.k.a. Oriental Jews), it suffers from the problems that plague most low-income areas—overcrowding, poor-quality housing and inadequate infrastructure. In recent years newcomers settled there, most notably foreign workers from the Philippines. More recently, asylum seekers from Sudan and Eritrea found their way to the economically depressed neighborhood. Tension between the veteran Jewish residents and the African asylum seekers has been high for quite some time, thanks partly to incitement from certain right-wing Members of Knesset and some rabbis, with the latter discouraging their followers from renting apartments to non-Jews. Last year the growing tension exploded in race riots. Mobs of angry Jewish residents smashed cars and shops belonging to blacks, beating and terrorizing them.
There are about 65,000 African asylum seekers spread around Israel, with a significant number concentrated in south Tel Aviv.
The Jewish residents of south Tel Aviv reject angrily the accusation that they are racists. They point out that the infrastructure and amenities in their impoverished neighborhoods are already overburdened. If the residents of the wealthy, liberal parts of the city had to share their apartment buildings and schools with impoverished asylum seekers from Africa, say the Jews of south Tel Aviv, they too would be resistant.
They might have a point there. Last year, some parents in the prosperous and fashionable Sheinkin area of central Tel Aviv opposed a visit from 35 black children for a joint Hanukkah at a local kindergarten. According to a Ynet (English) report, a group of parents started a chain of racist emails, with one claiming they needed to know if the African children had been immunized in order to “protect” their own children.
And so we have officials representing the city that markets itself as a paradise for gays and liberals of all types embracing the concept of segregated kindergartens, presenting it as a win-win for the African newcomers and the veteran residents.
“We understand what is happening in the southern part of the city,” one unidentified municipal official tells Ynet. “And thus we had no choice but to take this step. The residents are not interested in studying with the foreigners, so this is the only option left to us.”
According to the report, the segregated schools are for the children of black sub-Saharan asylum seekers only. The non-Jewish children from other regions, like Southeast Asia and Europe, will continue to attend the “Jewish” municipal kindergartens. Presumably Ethiopian Jewish children have been attending the mixed schools all along, and will continue to do so.
One Israeli activist who works on behalf of the asylum seekers’ children suggests that the municipality set up the segregated kindergarten in order to provide them with extra tutoring, helping to prepare them for elementary school. Then she adds dubiously that she hopes this was indeed the motivation. But residents quoted in the article seem pretty certain the municipality is responding to their demands by separating the African children from theirs.
Yoav Goldring, a city council member from the liberal City for All party, told Ynet that he is puzzled by the municipality’s decision to build segregated kindergartens, rather than simply more kindergartens for everyone. “Instead of resolving the neighborhood’s existing problems of overcrowding and lack of infrastructure, the municipality catered to the prevailing atmosphere of racial segregation.” Goldring added that he intended to request the ministry of education to look into this matter.
Segregation is actually illegal in Israel, but the law won’t be enforced unless someone takes the municipality of Tel Aviv and the ministry of education to court. Given the climate of crude racism directed against the Africans, with even radio presenters casually using the term “infiltrators” rather than refugees or asylum seekers, it is quite possible that no-one will think this outrageous incident is worth pursuing.