Education Ministry Tries to Create Program to Prepare Asylum Seekers’ Children for Life Abroad, Not Israel

08.06.23, Shira Kadari-Ovadia and Bar Peleg, Haaretz

Asylum Seeker Community

Children and adolescents


Israeli government policy

The Israeli Education Ministry is promoting a separate curriculum for the children of asylum seekers in south Tel Aviv aimed at preparing them for life abroad. A similar program promoted by the right-wing Israeli Immigration Policy Center in collaboration with the Education Ministry is said to be aimed at reducing the children’s affinity for Israel.

A memorandum of understanding that is narrower in scope and that was recently signed by the Education Ministry and the Tel Aviv municipality states that the ministry will promote a so-called “universal curriculum” at schools attended by the children of asylum-seekers. The exact details of the program, including the subjects to be taught and the scope of the program, have not yet been formulated.
Officials at the Tel Aviv municipality have expressed reservations over the Education Ministry’s plan. In addition, professional staff at the ministry itself have objected to portions of it, sources have said, and at the moment, it is not being advanced.
The Education Ministry Deputy Director General Avital Ben Shlomo, who until recently was a researcher at the conservative Kohelet Policy Forum think tank, is among those who have been involved in deliberations on the program, along with Education Minister Yoav Kisch’s chief of staff, Assif Kazola. Sources have told Haaretz that the two have tried to develop a separate curriculum for the children of asylum seekers that would not include the Bible or Israeli heritage.
The history and civics curriculum would also be different from the one used for Israeli children in state secular schools, sources said. The new program for asylum seekers’ children would emphasize English, math and science and would not include instruction on the Jewish holidays.
According to the memorandum between the Tel Aviv municipality and the ministry, the city agreed to a pilot program that would integrate the foreign children into schools in north Tel Aviv, which is generally the wealthiest part of the city. At one point in their discussions with city officials, Ben Shlomo and Kazula went as far as calling the program a new educational track.
Officials at the Tel Aviv municipality said they oppose the idea but have not rejected a plan that was due to be submitted to the High Court on Thursday that includes a section on universal curriculums. At this stage, it would mainly include funding for English instruction at schools attended by foreign students. The classes are considered enrichment instruction offered through the municipal education administration, which is seeking to improve the students’ English skills.

The High Court petition was filed on behalf of dozens of asylum seekers who are demanding that their children be integrated into the schools in Tel Aviv on an equal basis. It was filed by the Clinic for Law and Educational Policy at the University of Haifa and the Association for Civil Rights in Israel.The High Court had been due to address the issue last month, but the state – which is funding a pilot to integrate the children in north Tel Aviv – asked that the hearing be deferred to permit Education Minister Kisch to provide his stance to the court. Sources have said that since then, staff from Kisch’s office have been requesting professional opinions relating to the needs and integration of the children of asylum seekers. A hearing on the petition is scheduled for Sunday.The issue of integrating the children of asylum seekers into the education system has come up several times recently among officials at the Education Ministry. A professional opinion by Inbar Bobrovsky and Dr. Odette Sela from the Education Ministry’s Chief Scientist’s Office that was submitted to the court about a year ago stated that mainstreaming foreign children with Israeli children could damage the foreign children’s identities. The opinion called the issue of integrating the children in elementary school “a complex question that relates to sensitive cultural issues of stability and confidence at a young age.”

The professional opinion also claimed that integrating students throughout the city could create a large number of challenges that would perpetuate and even widen disparities among the students. The asylum seekers’ children might not feel “a sense of belonging to the community from which they come because they would be dispersed throughout the city and would not know the children whom they live with in the community,” the opinion stated. On the other hand, foreign children placed at schools elsewhere in the city wouldn’t be part of the “academic-social fabric” of their new schools and would face a lack of belonging and an inability to integrate, the opinion stated.

The right-wing Israeli Immigration Policy Center, which has a history of opposing the granting of asylum to African asylum seekers in Israel, is one of the groups in recent years that has focused on the question of integration of asylum seekers’ children. It has also been providing professional opinions and the results of research on the subject to the Education Ministry. The integration of foreign children into the education system also came up in 2021 at a meeting that Tel Aviv Mayor Ron Huldai had with the center’s former leader, Yonatan Jakubowicz, who was also an adviser to then-Interior Minister Ayelet Shaked.

The mayor rejected the idea at the time of establishing separate schools for foreign children, after which Jakubowicz tweeted that “international-style schools for foreign children, until they leave Israel, is the most logical, humane and Zionist step imaginable. There are those who throw around clichés about spreading them around. I agree. We need to have some of them dispersed back to Eritrea, some to Sudan and most of the others to third countries,” he quipped.According to the immigration policy center, Israel doesn’t need to teach foreign children Israeli content. The idea is based on the model of schools for the children of ambassadors, where the instruction is in English.Supporters of this approach claim that separating the students benefits them because it resolves the tension between the government’s desire to prevent them from permanently settling in the country and the need to address the asylum seekers’ children’s educational needs. In this way, the children will eventually understand that they are not Israelis and will not associate with other Israeli children. But they would still receive the education that the government is required to provide them according to international law and treaties, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child.

In another context, at a Knesset debate last year on the education of Ukrainian refugee children in Israel, Yona Cherki, a lawyer for the immigration policy center, explained: “These children are only here temporarily. They’re taking refuge here. We’re hosting them, but it’s important to acknowledge that, for their own sake, we need to maintain the special content that these same children would have gotten in their countries of origin.”

“In Europe, the curriculum for foreign children is coordinated with the foreign embassies,” Sherki asserted. “There’s an issue here of trauma, of language, but the issue comes up even more so when we’re dealing with a child who is here temporarily, over whom there’s no point in injecting the trauma of a language and certainly not a cultural trauma and so forth.”In a 2022 op-ed in the Hebrew daily Israel Hayom on the integration of foreign children in Tel Aviv schools, Cherki wrote: “Of course, the strategic idea is clear to everyone. When these children ‘become Israelis,’ the path to a legitimate demand to grant [legal] status to their parents who are in Israel illegally would be extremely short.”

“The more these children receive an international education, the content of which corresponds to their destination countries, the better off they will be. The task of reintegration into their parent’s countries of origin, or when they immigrate to a third country, will be much easier and more fulfilling,” he added.Addressing the arguments of the immigration policy center and the experts from the Education Ministry’s Chief Scientist’s Office, one educational professional said they run counter to current research in the fields of education and developmental psychology. Children who attend separate schools and who are divorced linguistically, emotionally and cognitive isolation from the society in which they live develop feelings of detachment, alienation and lack of belonging, he said, and this leads to feelings of incompetence, low self-esteem and lower academic achievement. It also damages their coping skills and sense of self-sufficiency, he claimed.

“There is no policy and won’t be a policy of separation that can benefit the children,” he asserted. “The best thing for children of asylum seekers is to integrate them into Israeli society, where they can feel a sense of belonging, acceptance and inclusion. Any attempt to teach them skills for some imaginary destination country that is not relevant to their day-to-day lives here in Israel is inconsistent with research in the field.”

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