By EA Sandra. Sandra recently returned to the UK after serving as an EA with EAPPI in Israel and occupied Palestine.
Back in May, in a quieter Jerusalem, an EA team attended a peaceful demonstration. It was the first ever by Christian schools in a protest outside the Israeli Ministry of Education.
The issue was the funding for Christian schools, as highlighted in a recent article in the Jerusalem Post.
There are 47 Christian schools in Israel, with 33,000 students and 3,000 teachers. Some 60% of the pupils are Christian, while the remainder are Muslims and Druze. There is even a tiny percentage of Jewish students.
The demonstration we attended was not successful, and the Christian schools have been on strike since the beginning of September.
Officials from the Christian schools claim they are receiving in effect just 29% of their expected funding at present, which they say has led to a NIS (New Israeli Shekel) 200 million shortfall for the new academic year.
Christian schools are currently categorised as “recognised but unofficial,” meaning they are supposed to receive 75% of the funding provided to full state schools, and are obligated to teach 75% of the teaching hours taught by state schools.
However, according to Father Abdul Massih Fahim, director-general of the Christian Schools Network, dialogue between the Christian schools and the Education Ministry ceased in March of this year, and since then the government has made proposals to turn the schools’ status from “recognised but unofficial” to “fully state-run”.
“This would mean the confiscation of the schools from the churches [that run them] physically, and in terms of the educational content,” Father Abdul said.
Another proposal has been to categorise the Christian schools as “special schools” in order to enable them to ask that parents pay higher fees of up to NIS 7,000 for each child per year, something that Fahim said was not reasonable.
Christian schools achieve some of the best results of all schools in Israel, with 69% of Christian pupils matriculating from high school compared to 61% in the Jewish sector and 50% in the Muslim sector, according to the Central Bureau for Statistics.
“The substance of our protest is justice, democracy and equality,” said Bishop Bulos Marcuzzo, the Auxiliary Bishop of Jerusalem and Patriarchal Vicar for Israel. “We are not treated in the same way as similar schools. We deserve and have the right to be treated like all the other schools in Israel.
In respect of the dispute, the central administration of the 47 Christian schools in Israel also pointed out that the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox Jewish) “recognised but unofficial” school networks Maayan Hinuch Torani and Hinuch Atzmai receive 100% of the funding received by fully state-run schools.
“How can you speak about democracy when 33,000 children can’t go to school,” Bishop Marcuzzo asks. “How can you speak about freedom and human rights when the best and oldest schools in Israel cannot operate properly because the Education Ministry doesn’t give us what we deserve?”The dispute took an unusual turn when, on September 1, Arab schools in Israel also held a strike in support of the Christian schools.
As Israeli parliament member Ayman Odeh, chairman of the Joint Arab List, noted, “Almost a third of Arab university graduates and an absolute majority of Arab high-tech workers are graduates of the very schools that the government is now trying to paralyze. It’s impossible to talk about development and equal opportunity on one hand, but on the other hand harm the very schools that are succeeding in breaking the glass ceiling.”
Another Israeli parliament member, Masud Ganaim, who represents the Islamic Movement in the Joint Arab List, said the church schools are “among the best in Arab society, and therefore their struggle is our struggle”.
Nazareth Mayor Ali Salem agreed. “This isn’t the schools’ private problem, but an issue for all of Arab society,” he said.
Other Arab mayors and the Arab school parents’ committees echoed this message, stressing that Christians and Muslims alike study at these schools.
All these remarks were in line with the main message the demonstration’s organisers sought to drive home: that funding the church schools is a gain for the country, not a loss.
Representatives of the Christian schools have met Israel’s President Riviln, and the Patriarchs and Head of local churches in Jerusalem have now issued a joint statement.
The issues have also been reported on the British site Jews for Justice in Palestine.
In May, Palestinian President Abbas, when visiting the Vatican, urged Palestinian Christians to “Stay with us.” This issue seems to show that the two groups are indeed staying firmly together.
A temporary end to the dispute has just been announced as a result of a one-off payment to the schools, but the core issues have still to be resolved.
Let this demonstrator sum up the message!