The Tragedy and Farce of Cuts to Israeli Government Funding for Church Schools

The unintended consequence of the cut in government funding is an increase in the ongoing frustration among the Arab population who stand with the church educational institutions.

Emil Salman

The French school in Jaffa had operated continuously since 1882. This year, however, for the first time, after 130 years under Ottoman, British and Israeli governments, it shut down for about a month.

Over the years, the school administrations took care to navigate a course between the policies of the church and the sovereign government. Particularly since 1948, the school has exercised caution and refrained from politicization or any unnecessary confrontation with Israeli authorities.

As a result, the administration of the French school did not demonstrate solidarity with the state Arab schools when they launched strikes, on Land Day for example, in protest at government expropriation of Arab land, or by shutting down school to mark the events in October 2000 in which 12 Israeli Arab demonstrators were killed. The school has also refrained from religious preaching and has observed strict separation between religion and education. From a broader perspective, one could say that it is the desire of the Christian establishment in general simply to survive within the Israeli educational system.

It’s not clear what the government is trying to achieve by cutting its financial support for the church schools. From a sociological standpoint, the schools clearly involve the top ranks of Arab society, producing a creative, dynamic and cosmopolitan elite that sometimes speaks as many as four languages – the envy of any wise government.

The church schools adhere to Israeli Education Ministry curricula, with the exception of a few French and British schools, where in addition to an Arab majority student body there is a small number of Jewish students and immigrants from the former Soviet Union. As residents of Jaffa who studied at the French school, we cherish the opportunity that we had to receive a multicultural education, free of Zionist or Palestinian indoctrination – an education that ironically was made possible under the colonialist-imperialist auspices of French culture.

It was not by chance that our small class (of five Arabs, including four Muslims and one Christian, one Jew, one student with two religions, an African and two French students) produced four university lecturers working in Israel and abroad (in math, anthropology, Muslim law and psychoanalysis), two lawyers, an engineer and a doctor.

The unintended consequence of the cut in government funding is an increase in the ongoing frustration among the Arab population who stand with the church educational institutions. Demonstrations around the country were marked by an atmosphere characteristic of an excluded national minority that is being deprived of its basic rights. The social protest is couched in terms relating to citizenship, democracy and equal rights but, as has been the case since the events of October 2000, the public discourse would give expression to powerlessness and growing alienation from Israeli society.

This is visible in the (still very moderate) slogans they have displayed in Hebrew, Arabic, English and French. For example: “The intense fury is coming” (quoting a song about Jerusalem by the Lebanese singer Fairuz); “Without Christian schools in Israel, there is no identity”; “Democracy and equality”; “Respect our rights as Israeli citizens” and “The snowball is rolling.”

The relative neutrality of the Christian establishment from a historical standpoint is based on divide-and-conquer policies of Israeli governments that granted privileges to Christians that were not given to Muslims (mainly regarding religious properties and the independence of ecclesiastical courts compared to Sharia Muslim courts). It would be a mistake, however, to think that the church schools are sectarian and religious. After all, they serve the elite of the entire Arab population. Some of these school have among the highest achievements in Israel, and they also provide access to education to students of modest means.

The cuts in funding to church schools will result in a drastic increase in tuition fees and deeply affect the economic class structure of Arab society. There is no escaping the conclusion that the government is trying to bring about the social elimination of the most enlightened and educated segment of Arab society, along with Arab civil society in general (such as proposed legislation on contributions from foreign governments).

The clear message, which up to now has been directed mainly at the Muslim population – that they are not equal citizens – is now being directed via the church schools to the entire Arab population of the country. Such a message would not only blur the distinctions between Muslim and Christian, which the security services have worked so hard on, and also have a big impact on the education system, but also would bring all the country’s Arab citizens together as victims of the regime.

One cannot help but identify with the roughly 30,000 parents who are witness to how their taxes fund the West Bank settlements and religious schools, such as those in the ultra-Orthodox Jewish Ma’ayan Hahinuch Hatorani system, while the education that the parents are seeking for their children at church schools receives low priority. The strategic mistake that has been made since the establishment of the state, resulting in the alienation of the Arab minority in Israel (83 percent of which is Muslim), will undoubtedly be repeated. Paraphrasing Karl Marx, one can see Israeli policy repeating its mistakes, first as tragedy and then as farce.

Daniel Monterescu is a professor in the sociology and social anthropology department at Central European University in Budapest. Moussa Abou Ramadan is a lecturer in law at the Carmel Academic Center in Haifa.