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A Failing Grade for East Jerusalem Schools

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The opening of the school year provides an annual opportunity to turn the public gaze, if only briefly, from the boiling political arena to the education system -- both for its successes and its failures. 

While the media spot lights will be trained on the minister of education, the president, other senior officials, the festivites at various schools around the country, and opinionated panelists debating on the status of teachers in Israel, the most neglected and marginalized sector in the jurisdiction of the Israeli education system will continue to remain outside the circle of discourse. None of these panelists, presumably, will refer to the fact that in East Jerusalem, more than half the children within the ages of compulsory education cannot matriculate into the public school system. Although they are entitled by law to free compulsory education, but in East Jerusalem the law is not the law, education is not education, and there are certainly no free rides. 

There is no dispute about the facts: the state itself admits that missing in East Jerusalem there is a lack of over a thousand classrooms, and that more than half of existing classrooms do not meet the standards of the Ministry of Education. In a feeble attempt to deal with the problem, over the ears residential buildings, warehouses, and in one case even a sheep-stead were converted into classrooms.  In these improvised classrooms, forty or more students study without ventilation, sometimes with hundreds of students sharing two or three bathrooms. Luxuries such as laboratories, remedial classrooms, or even a library are simply out of the question. 

Still, these students are the lucky ones among the children of East Jerusalem. Most of them are not even offered such inadequate solutions. They are simply turned away.. Some find an answer in private schools, but this solution is not accessible to most children in East Jerusalem, seventy-five percent of whom live below the poverty line. Others enroll into the education system provided by the Islamic Waqf. Thousands of children -- and no credible authority -- can say exactly how many -- just stay on the street. 

This harsh reality not only attests to Israel's morally deplorable neglect of children in East Jerusalem, but also to the ongoing breach of its obligations in this matter before the Supreme Court. This year marks the ten years since the parents of twenty-six Palestinian students petitioned the Supreme Court claiming their children could not be placed anywhere in the public education system. Ever since, the issue has been brought up again and again before the court. Each time the court mandates that the state immediately rectify the situation. But the state continues to shake off this basic responsibility. While the ball continues to roll between the Ministry of Education, the municipality of Jerusalem and the director of education in the city, the children continue to pay the price . 

This situation may be dictated, in part, by decision makers who find it difficult to decide in favor of investing millions of shekels into an area whose political future is uncertain. But as long as Israel is sovereign in the area, it remains its obligation to provide a proper education for the children of residents -- not only by virtue of state laws and international conventions, but by virtue of justice and fairness which should have some weight; even in East Jerusalem.