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A Daycare Tragedy Opens My Eyes

Sometimes a single truth, belatedly discovered, can change one’s world view with surprising swiftness. The article that changed mine was published in Ha’aretz—a newspaper I never read, considering it, like most Israelis, to be far left of the Far Left. I’d only bought it because my granddaughter Mattan’s photo was on the front page, part of an article about teen journal writing during COVID.

The article in question was a long interview by journalists Noa Lemone and Hilo Glazer with Anat Dayagi, founder of Parents for Infant Care, who was propelled to activism when her healthy eight-month-old son David died in a daycare center four years ago. At the time, there were eight babies in the center and only one carer, who later admitted she was “half-asleep” and did not know how to administer CPR. The carer called for an ambulance only after placing three phone calls to her husband. By the time the medics arrived, as they later told Dayagi and her husband, the baby was “blue and cold and had been dead for some time.”

Credit: Brina Blum

Police investigators closed the case quickly, calling it a “crib death.” Dayagi investigated and was shocked to discover that no laws had been broken: Current Israeli law allows anyone to open a daycare center, without any licensing criteria, training or government inspection. “Criminals, pedophiles, drug addicts … no problem, all are welcome,” Dayagi says bitterly. No rule barred having one carer for eight babies, although accepted professional guidelines call for a one-to-three ratio.

Dayagi vowed to tighten the laws, and she made slow but steady progress getting the support of politicians and ministers—that is, until she hit the brick wall of the lobbying group Kohelet Policy Forum.

The Forum—whose greatest achievement so far has been to create and lobby through the Knesset the Basic Law defining the State of Israel as the homeland of the Jewish people—is officially politically neutral and is funded mostly by U.S. donors, including the right-leaning Tikvah Fund. It describes itself on its website as “an independent research and practice institute operating from Jerusalem to secure the future of Israel as the nation state of the Jewish people, to strengthen representative democracy, to expand individual freedoms and to deepen the principles of the free market.” Before learning about Dayagi, I would have described myself as an avid supporter of all of these things. But Dayagi’s story reveals the Kohelet Forum’s wider agenda—as well as what lies behind its ideals when put into practice.

With support from Knesset members Yifat Sasha Biton and Karin Elharar, Dayagi helped pass a 2018 law making the operation of an unlicensed daycare center a criminal offense, stating that a person with a criminal record cannot open such a center and requiring that children be supervised at all times. Although vague and hard to enforce, the law was slated for implementation by 2019. More momentum came from public demonstrations over another daycare scandal, in 2019, in which graphic footage showed children and babies in the Baby Love daycare center in Rosh Ha’Ayin being tied up, force-fed and smothered by blankets.

Credit: Daniela Dimitrova

But then progress stalled. New objections had suddenly arisen from an unexpected quarter: The Kohelet Forum prepared a position paper objecting strenuously to the entire law on the grounds that the cost of hiring more carers would be prohibitive. With the backing of the ruling party and the Haredim—who have a paramount interest in keeping daycare costs low—Kohelet opposed early education legislation on the grounds that it would put many private daycare centers out of business. Their slogan: “It is not nice to see a nursery closed.”

“Their reach and power is awesome,” Dayagi says in the interview. “They put pressure on every front, even reaching out to clerical workers. They have direct contact with ministers, mainly on the Right but not just.”

In the article, Kohelet Forum director Meir Rubin explains that “I sent my two children to private nurseries and paid 6,000 shekels [about $1,800] a month. It takes a lot of chutzpah for them to force me to pay more… Parents know what’s good for their children.” Rubin argues that “there is no statistic which shows there are more accidents in private daycare than in government-run institutions,” a stance consistent with the Kohelet Forum’s emphasis on “deepening free market principles,” not unlike that of many U.S. conservatives.

Although I may agree with some of their agenda, this story convinces me that the Kohelet Forum’s lobbying power is dangerous, particularly in the sphere of social policy. Our youngest citizens deserve laws that put their well-being above the profit margins of daycare center providers. In the run-up to the March elections, I have closely monitored the candidates’ support for early childhood reform, planning to take that information with me into the voting booth—and distancing myself from my usual ideological comfort zones.

And I think I will be reading Ha’aretz more often.

This article was first published in Moment Magazine.

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10 comments on “A Daycare Tragedy Opens My Eyes”

  1. Sudie Reply

    Naomi – If we’ve learned anything, it’s that often the truth lies somewhere in the middle.

  2. Naomi Tagen Reply

    Dahlia it’s hard to see what she’s asking for is too much or that there’s a better way, After all, all she wants is that day care centers follow simple rules: backgrounds checks on workers, a safe ratio between workers and babies, inspections by authorities…Would you send your dog to an unlicensed care center with no background checks?

    • Dahlia Reply

      The rules definitely sound sensible, but what about the details ? What is a safe ratio ? Who decides ? On what basis ?

      • Naomi Reply

        This isn’t rocket science. In Western countries the ratio is one worker for three babies. There are thousands of studies that back up safety regulations in daycare.

  3. Dahlia Reply

    Shalom Naomi,
    Any loss of life is terrible, and death of babies shatters the heart. May we never hear any more, G-d forbid.
    However, just like we don’t stop all traffic to avoid accidents, the issue of day care must be considered with serious thought, weighing the different issues at hand. Some claim, for example, that making the maternity leave longer has hurt the careers of working mothers, because employers are that much more hesitant to take them. We must be careful and make sure stricter regulation don’t put babies in more danger. Therefore, looking into research and information about what happens elsewhere is important. Not always what seems logical at first, really works. With all due respect to this specific activist, it’s not fair to claim anyone who disagrees with her is worried more about the profit margin of the care providers than the safety of the children. Maybe there are better, more effective ways to ensure their safety ?

  4. Chava Reply

    This was truly a tragedy.
    I don’t want to sound like I’m blaming the victim. There wasn’t really enough information to judge anything, even if I wanted to judge anything. But, it isn’t clear if the mother knew the situation when she decided to leave her baby in that daycare. Maybe the ratio of 8 to 1 was not the normal situation or she was led to believe that it wasn’t. Maybe the other adults weren’t there that day and there were no substitutes available. I think that often private daycare is just fine, sometimes (often) even better than government-run facilities. We usually only hear about situations that aren’t okay at all, and don’t hear anything about positive situations.

  5. Ellen Reply

    I’ve been trying to get in touch with you directly because you mention Orchard Park, N.Y in each chapter in one of your wonderful books. Born and raised in Boro Park, Brooklyn – I have never heard of this area or in any part of Brooklyn.

    • Joel Reply

      Orchard Park, N.Y. is a suburb of Buffalo. Football fans may have heard of it because the Buffalo Bills play there.

  6. Jessica Spitalnic Mates Reply

    Naomi – I love your work and I was struck by your line that you avoid papers of different viewpoints than yours and ask you to consider reading Adam Grant’s new book THINK AGAIN. It is about learning to dwell in spaces with people of different opinion than our own. And in doing that it widens our point of view and makes us have the ability to recalibrate and rethink and in some cases hold even more tightly to our original beliefs. If we only read people who agree with us we lose the opportunity to have our horizons expanded and stand in someone else’s shoes and open the doorway to help them stand in ours. Many thanks.
    https://www.adamgrant.net/book/think-again/

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