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Ha'aretz, Sunday, April 04, 1999

Chabad schools are shunning Ethiopians

Education Ministry and local authorities remain silent

By Aliza Arbeli, Ha'aretz Correspondent

The educational institutions of the Chabad Hasidic movement do not accept Ethiopian children, despite the fact that the schools are under the supervision of the Education Ministry and receive state funding.

The late Lubavitcher Rebbe expressed doubts over the Jewish origins of Ethiopian immigrants to Israel and instructed that they be excluded from Chabad institutions.

In Chabad kindergartens, elementary and secondary schools, Jews from Ashkenazi and Sephardi backgrounds can be found, including recent immigrants from the former Soviet Union. But not a single Ethiopian Jew is enrolled in the educational network.

The situation is especially problematic in outlying areas with large concentrations of Ethiopians. In many areas, Ethiopians find themselves in homogeneous classrooms, hindering their integration into Israeli society.

Menachem Brod, spokesman for Chabad, confirms that Ethiopian children are not accepted in the Hasidic movement's institutions. "This is an instruction from the Lubavitcher Rebbe and also a ruling by our rabbis," he said.

He also reiterated that the Ethiopians are not being singled out, since Chabad policy applies to anyone whose Jewishness is in question.

According to Brod, "The problem with the Ethiopians arose with the arrival of immigrants in Operation Solomon, when they were flown by their leader and refused to undergo conversion according to halacha, as the Operation Moshe immigrants did. Therefore, their Jewishness is in question... It is true that the state registered them as Jews, but the state registered many immigrants as Jews whose Jewishness is questionable and even non-Jews have been registered as Jews."

Local authorities and the Education Ministry have accepted the Chabad ban on Ethiopians without protest.

Even the Israeli Association of Ethiopian Immigrants backtracked on plans to appeal to the High Court of Justice.

In Kiryat Malachi, there are some 5,000 people living in a Chabad neighborhood and 3,000 Ethiopians out of a total population of about 22,000. The Chabad residents include immigrants from Georgia and Bukhara, as well as an Ashkenazi contingent considered especially fanatic. Most of the Ethiopian children attend the government religious schools, while Chabad runs a comprehensive network of schools that are off limits for Ethiopians.

"It is outright racism. Ethiopian children are accepted in all of the educational institutions in town, including those of Shas, but just for the Chabad Hasidim the Ethiopians are not Jewish enough?" complains Abraham Tatazai, an Ethiopian representative in Kiryat Malachi.

Political considerations explain why the local authorities have done nothing to oppose the Chabad policy. The electoral power of the Chabad residents translates into three seats on the town council. The previous mayor, Moshe Shimon, included Chabad representatives on his slate and did not protest Chabad's exclusionary policy despite a severe shortage of classrooms in the government schools.

On the other hand, new mayor (and younger brother of Tourism Minister Moshe Katsav) Lior Katsav has vowed to address the issue. "As the one responsible for education in the municipality, I visited the Chabad schools and it was lightheartedly suggested to me that I register my son in the school when he comes of age. I responded that my son would not study in a school that does not accept immigrant children," Katsav said. "I intend to talk with Chabad leaders and the Education Ministry in order to find an arrangement for voluntary acceptance of the immigrants. I don't think that a forced solution would help in this case."

The chairman of the parents committee in Kiryat Malachi, Eli Ezriel, has already tried to talk with the Education Ministry, but has only a pile of frustrating correspondence to show.

"I turned to late Education Minister Zevulun Hammer and also current Education Minister Yitzhak Levy; I turned to the chairman of the [Knesset] Education Committee; and the Minister of Absorption. I tried to contact [MK] Addisu Messele and received no reply. I received evasive answers to the dozens of letters I sent."

Rabbi Yeruslavski, the leader of Chabad in Kiryat Malachi, says that the policy of not accepting Ethiopian children is an internal matter and has nothing to do with racism. "We have principles. We also did not accept children from the [former Soviet Union] if there is any doubt to their Jewishness," the Chabad rabbi said.

(c) copyright 1999 Ha'aretz. All Rights Reserved

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