The unthinkable has happened -- Israeli police officials have begun calling in parents of Shuvu students for interrogation at police headquarters. The summons includes an initial fine of 2,000 shekels, or $450. If convicted of criminal charges, students and parents will face steeper fines and perhaps even a jail sentence as the Israeli Education Ministry carries out its campaign to close Shuvu schools in the north whose success threatens the government school system.
Police are preparing to close down two Shuvu schools -- one in Nahariya, the other in Nazareth -- on December 15 1999, the final deadline of the closure orders issued two weeks ago by the Education Ministry. If police go through with the forced closures, over 300 students will be compelled to abandon the Shuvu network and to join the public school system.
Education Ministry officials issued the closure orders under the pretext that the two Shuvu schools are operating without licenses, but this is clearly not the real issue, since both schools have gone through the standard procedure required by law for obtaining licenses. Furthermore, several hundred schools throughout Israel operate without licenses and have never encountered any legal problems.
Based on their false pretext, police view Shuvu students in Nahariya and Nazareth as truants, since the schools they attend do not officially exist. Parents of students can therefore be charged with an even more serious crime -- encouraging students to be absent from school without permission.
These charges may strike the objective observer as ridiculous and outlandish, but for the youngsters and parents who were subjected to long hours of interrogation at police headquarters this week, they are very tangible and real.
The real reason why the Education Ministry has targeted the two Shuvu schools is that they are becoming increasingly popular among local residents. On the opening day of the 5760 school year, public schools in the vicinity noticed a sharp decline in the number of students attending classes. A brief investigation revealed that the missing students had switched to the Shuvu schools.
"As a result of the opening of these [Shuvu] schools," reported Israel Broadcasting Authority correspondent Yael ben Yehuda in a national evening news bulletin, "six classes were closed in Upper Nazareth alone."
Acco's mayor, Dr. Shemaryahu Biran, had this to say on the matter: "The migration of students [to Shuvu] has a negative impact no only on Acco, but also on Shlomi and Nahariya. Sometimes the loss of two or three students from every grade can cause an entire school to close down."
Yet the decrease in the quantity of students in their schools is less disturbing to public school principals than the quality of the students that migrate to Shuvu -- an inordinate percentage of students in the top percentile have abandoned the public school system and joined Shuvu.
Instead of competing fairly with Shuvu by improving the public schools and raising the scholastic level they offer to students, the Meretz Education Minister has fallen back on the Bolshevik method of coercion and legal persecution. Israel claims to be the only democracy in the Middle East, but lately its government has shown a clear tendency towards decidedly undemocratic methods to enforce its will on the country's citizens. Mobilizing police against defenseless students and parents whose only crime is their desire to benefit from a Torah education is a clear infringement on their civil rights. When this is done on trumped-up charges, the violation is even more serious.
And then of course there is the religious-secular issue. As the head of the education committee of the Nahariya area, Dr. Shmuel Abuav, explained during the televised debate, "[Shuvu] school officials slowly bring the students and parents through the halls of the school and into the chareidi world."
Education Ministry official Dr. Doron Mor elaborated this idea further by sputtering: "The [Shuvu] system is anti integration, anti pedagogy, elitist, and contrary to all of the Ministry's policies."
After recovering from the initial shock of seeing these students and parents become victims of religious persecution at the hands of a Jewish government in the State of Israel, Shuvu officials in Israel and the United States launched a counteroffensive on several fronts. Intense lobbying efforts have been initiated in both countries, directed at both Prime Minister Ehud Barak, who has been spending much of his time in New York lately, and at Education Minister Yossi Sarid. Shuvu also asks members of the Torah community to write to Israeli government officials and denounce the closure orders and call for an immediate halt to the police action.
"Shuvu is declaring a state of emergency," says Rabbi Chaim Michael Guterman, the network's director in Eretz Yisroel. "The situation has gotten completely out of hand, and we demand that the persecution be stopped immediately."