Christian School Students in Israel Protest for More Funding

Hundreds rally outside Education Ministry demanding end to budgetary discrimination; Catholic leaders reportedly pushing for Pope Francis to intervene by turning to PM Netanyahu directly.

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Christian school students demonstrate outside the Education Ministry in Jerusalem, May 27, 2015.
Christian school students demonstrate outside the Education Ministry in Jerusalem, May 27, 2015.Credit: Emil Salman

Hundreds of students and teachers from Christian schools demonstrated outside the Education Ministry on Wednesday, saying that Christian education in Israel could come to an end if discrimination in budgeting was not eradicated.

Also on hand were leaders of the country's Christian community. Meanwhile, Catholic leaders in Israel are reportedly pushing for Pope Francis to contact the Prime Minister’s Office directly.

“This is basically a death sentence for the Christians in Israel. If [the authorities] don’t want Christian education in Israel, they should just come out and say so,” said Awni Bathish, who is representing the schools in the protest.

“Our situation is untenable, and we can’t go into the parents’ pockets, because many parents come from a low socioeconomic class. We even have a hard time collecting the 4,000 shekels [$1,030] a year per student” that parents pay.

The Christian education system in Israel is “unofficially recognized” — as the local terminology has it — and so gets 75 percent of its funding from the Education Ministry. The rest is the 4,000 shekels from parents, though this fee may be higher at some schools.

The vast majority of the students in this system are Arabs, some of them Muslims. In Israel, 47 schools are church-run; 3,000 teachers there teach 30,000 students.

A few years ago, the Education Ministry began cutting funding for “unofficially recognized” schools. The ministry also limited the fees that parents may be charged — the schools say they will only be able to collect up to 2,500 shekels per student annually.

Officials of the Catholic church told Haaretz the Education Ministry was trying to get the schools to compromise and join the official state school system.

“Unfortunately, the Education Ministry — and maybe the government too — sees a group that is politically weak and thinks it can impose its will,” a church official told Haaretz.

“Everyone understands that if you hurt a school system like Shas’ Hama’ayan Hatorani or the yeshivas the government will fall,” he said, referring to religious Jewish school systems. “In our case, no one thinks it’s a big deal.”

He said the prime minister and education minister had to get involved to solve the problem.

“These are schools and educational institutions that were opened before the founding of the state,” he said. “You can’t just dismiss a decades-long heritage and enter into a bargaining process.”

The Education Ministry, for its part, said the Christian schools had rejected every proposal it had made. A source close to the Vatican said Rome was familiar with the issue and intended to get involved.

“It’s not like the government and the Education Ministry are doing the schools a favor,” the source said. “This is one of the best school systems in the country and deserves support like all the other schools. I know that the issue will be on the agenda at every upcoming meeting between Vatican and Israeli officials.”

According to the Adalah Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights, there are 11 Arab schools in Haifa, including five Christian schools attended by 60 percent of the city’s Arab schoolchildren.

In Tel Aviv, out of 11 Arab schools, five are “unofficially recognized” schools affiliated with various Christian denominations. In Nazareth, there are 23 regular state schools, including 13 church-affiliated.

According to the Education Ministry, 12 of the Arab church-affiliated schools are “leading schools” — grades are above the national average. Four of these schools are in Nazareth.

According the ministry, 95 percent of graduates in the “leading” church schools are typically eligible for the matriculation certificate, compared with 90 percent in “good” Jewish schools. And 93 percent meet university entrance requirements, compared with 86.3 percent from “good” Jewish schools.

The Education Ministry said that on Monday its director-general, Michal Cohen, had met with representatives of the Christian schools.

The ministry said the officials of the Christian schools rejected every proposal. “The church schools, like other recognized but unofficial schools in Israel, are budgeted according to the parameters set down in legislation,” the ministry said in a statement.

“The director-general also proposed to them the following alternatives: preserving these schools’ status as recognized and unofficial for the meantime while examining the possibility of classifying them as ‘unique’ schools. Then the Education Ministry would help these schools as it does the other ‘unique’ schools that are part of the recognized but unofficial framework.”

Alternatively, the ministry said, the Christian schools could “join the public education system, which would mean a budget allocation of 100 percent while preserving the school’s special characteristics.”

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