The plight of 102 Ethiopian-born children in the town of Petach Tikva who do not have a school place has raised serious questions about the Israeli education system.
At the centre of the argument is the refusal of three private religious schools to accept about 50 of these children into their normal classes.
The Education Ministry, the media and even President Shimon Peres have all come down hard on these three schools, accusing them of racism.
But the schools are adamant that the children are simply not suited to their curriculum, and it would not be in their interests to be pupils.
While it would be hard to describe the lives of most of Israel’s Ethiopian community as Orthodox, the majority of Ethiopian children are sent for a range of political and social reasons to state religious schools.
For the Falashmura Ethiopians — a group descended from Jews who converted to Christianity — religious education is also a condition of the giyur process they have to go through as a condition of citizenship.
The 150,000 Israelis of Ethiopian descent tend to live in homogeneous areas. As a result, in many cases, they form a large proportion of the pupils in the local religious schools.
In many places, parents have complained that the influx of Ethiopian children, many of them lacking basic literacy skills, has brought the schools’ standards down sharply.
In Petach Tikva in central Israel, where a large number of Falashmura live, this has caused an exodus of parents and pupils to private schools.
Most private schools still receive about 60 per cent of their funding from the state, but they are usually given wide discretion in their admissions policy.
There are five state religious schools in Petach Tikva and about 22 per cent of their pupils are Ethiopian.
In two of the schools, they make up close to half the student body and the Education Ministry is anxious to spread the load to the three private religious schools in the city as well.
These schools have agreed only to accept Ethiopian children in separate classes, a solution turned down by the ministry, which claims that it will cause segregation and “ghettos”.
David Sharfer, the administrative director of LaMerchav school, denies that there is any racism.
He said: “We have six Ethiopian students but bringing in more will harm the school, it will bring it down to their level instead of bringing them up to the school’s level.”
The parents and rabbis who founded the private schools claim that, in reality, the Ethiopian children do not observe a religious lifestyle and that the schools were set up for families who wanted their children to learn in a more Torah-intensive environment.
“Our children study Torah and Talmud four hours a day,” says one parent. “How can anyone expect a child who can barely read Hebrew to be happy in such an environment?”
The private religious schools that call themselves Torani (Torah-intensive) as opposed to Mamlachti-Dati (national-religious) have long been a bone of contention within the religious community, where some accuse them of being elitist.
Politicians representing the religious community have tried to paper over the inner divisions and instead have accused the ministry of shifting the problem on to them, as the Ethiopian children do not go to secular or strictly-Orthodox schools.
Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar steadfastly refused to give in to the private schools, threatening last week to take away their funding unless they accept the Ethiopian children.
The governors of these schools held out until Monday evening, 12 hours before the first school bell, and then gave in.
Forty eight Ethiopian children will be allowed to start the school year in the three private schools, and additional children who move to Petach Tikva during the year will also be admitted.