An Arab couple whose one-year-old daughter was expelled from an Israeli day-care centre on her first day are suing a Jewish mother for damages, accusing her of racist incitement against their child.
Maysa and Shua’a Zuabi, from the village of Sulam in northern Israel, launched the court action last week saying they had been “shocked and humiliated” when the centre’s owner told them that six Jewish parents had demanded their daughter’s removal because she is an Arab.
In the first legal action of its kind in Israel, the Zuabis are claiming $80,000 from Neta Kadshai, whom they accuse of being the ringleader.
The girl, Dana, is reported to be the first Arab child ever to attend the day-care centre in the rural Jewish community of Merhavia, less than 1km from Sulam.
However, human rights lawyers say that, given the narrow range of anti-racism legislation in Israel, the chance of success for the Zuabis is low.
Since its founding in 1948, Israel has operated an education system almost entirely segregated between Jews and Arabs.
However, chronic underfunding of Arab schools means that in recent years a small but growing number of Arab parents have sought to move their children into the Jewish system.
Dana was admitted to the day-care centre last December, according to the case, after its owner, Ivon Grinwald, told the couple she had a vacant place. However, on Dana’s first day six parents threatened to withdraw their own children if she was not removed.
Ms Kadshai, in particular, is said to have waged a campaign of “slurs and efforts aimed at having [Dana] removed from the day-care centre, making it clear that [her] children would not be in the same centre as an Arab girl”. Mrs Zuabi was summoned to a meeting the same evening at which Ms Grinwald said she could not afford to lose the six children. She returned the contract Mrs Zuabi had signed and repaid her advance fees.
Mrs Zuabi said that while she was in the office Ms Grinwald received a call from Ms Kadshai again slandering Dana and demanding her removal.
Ms Grinwald refused to speak to the media last week. However, last December, when the Zuabis first complained, she told Army Radio: “The [Jewish] parents called her a girl from ‘the [Arab] sector’, they said this is a day-care centre for Jewish children and that it should stay that way … I can’t change the world, I have to look out for my livelihood.”
Although Israel lacks a constitution, the Zuabis’ lawyer, Dori Kaspi, is suing Ms Kadshai under the terms of the 1992 Basic Law on Human Freedom and Dignity, the nearest legislation Israel has to a bill of rights.
In previous cases when Arab children have been excluded from schools, the parents have launched a legal action for discrimination against the education authorities or the school itself.
Lawyers are doubtful that the couple can win given the law’s lack of reference to the principles of equality or equal opportunities.
One lawyer, who wished not to be named, said: “Instances like this are not covered by laws against discrimination. Anti-discrimination legislation in Israel is very specific, covering mainly examples of discrimination in employment and access to public places like pubs and clubs.”
Even then, the lawyer added, enforcement was extremely lax.
Instances of Arab children being denied places at Jewish kindergartens and junior schools have become more common in recent years, especially in the country’s handful of mixed cities.
Yousef Jabareen, head of Dirasat, a Nazareth-based organisation monitoring education issues, said when parents tried to switch their children to Jewish schools it was because of the poor conditions in Arab education institutions.
“Although it’s an understandable reaction, it’s a cause for concern,” he said. “In Jewish schools Arab children are not taught their language, culture or history. Their Arab identity has to be sacrificed for them to receive a decent education.”
A report published in March revealed that the government invested $1,100 in each Jewish pupil’s education compared to $190 for each Arab pupil. The gap is even wider when compared to the popular state-run religious schools, where Jewish pupils receive nine times more funding than Arab pupils.
There is also an official shortfall of more than 1,000 classrooms for Arab children, said Mr Jabareen, though Arab organisations believe the problem is in reality much worse. In addition, a significant proportion of existing Arab school buildings have been judged unsafe or dangerous to children’s health.
In some parts of the country where private religious schools are available, particularly in Nazareth and Haifa, Arab parents are turning their back on the state-run system, said Mr Jabareen.
Two-thirds of the 7,500 Arab pupils in the northern mixed city of Haifa, for example, are reported to be attending private schools, despite high levels of poverty among the population.
Last September, the Adalah legal centre for Israel’s Arab minority forced the municipality of the mixed city of Ramle, near Tel Aviv, to register an Arab boy in a Jewish kindergarten close to his home.
The mayor, Yoel Lavi, had earlier told the boy’s parents that he could not be admitted because he was an Arab and that the kindergarten served only Jewish children.
Mr Jabareen said he favoured binational and bilingual schools in which Jewish and Arab children could meet and study as equals. However, the state did not offer such schools to parents.
Four bilingual elementary schools admitting both Arab and Jewish children have been established privately. Israel has no mixed secondary schools.
Mike Prashker, director of Merchavim, an organisation advocating shared citizenship in Israel, recently told the Haaretz newspaper: "The Israeli reality of segregated education systems creates ignorance and fear of the ‘other’.”
A poll published by Haifa University in January found that three-quarters of Jewish pupils regarded Arabs as “uneducated, uncivilised and dirty”.
A recent survey by Merchavim found that the segregation among pupils was mirrored by segregation among teachers. Despite some 8,000 Arab teachers being recorded as unemployed by the education ministry, only a few dozen work in Jewish schools, mainly teaching Arabic, even though the Jewish system is suffering from staff shortages.
The previous dovish education minister Yuli Tamir established a public committee last year to develop for the first time a “shared life” policy for Jewish and Arab schools.
The committee issued its report earlier this year recommending more meetings between Jewish and Arab children, that Arabic should be taught to Jewish pupils, and that schools should employ both Arab and Jewish teachers.
The new rightwing government of Benjamin Netanyahu announced it was freezing the report in April.
A version of this article originally appeared in The National, published in Abu Dhabi.