JERUSALEM — All 47 of Israel’s Christian schools finally opened their doors on Monday, following a nearly month-long strike spurred by years of crippling Israeli government budget cuts and inequality between Christian schools and some ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools.
In a statement, the Secretariat of Christian Schools in Israel said the Ministry of Finance had agreed to a “one-time” 50 million shekel ($12.7 million) allocation to the schools for the current school year and will permit teachers in Christian schools (which are semi-private) to participate in a variety of Ministry of Education professional-development programs.
There is nothing in place beyond one year.
The schools, 40 of them Catholic, teach 33,000 Christian and Muslim Arab students in central and northern Israel.
The agreement, which Church officials are hailing as a victory, was achieved after nearly two years of negotiations between church representatives and Israeli officials came to a grinding halt.
Realizing that the Ministry of Education would not agree to its demands, the Christian community launched a strike on Sept. 1 and held several well-publicized demonstrations around the country, which garnered a great deal of Israeli and international media coverage.
Bowing to pressure from Holy Land Christian schools, Israeli parliamentarians, the Vatican and representatives of several foreign governments, the Israeli Treasury eventually agreed to the schools’ demands for higher funding and participation in the country’s teacher-training programs.
The schools’ students will for the first time be eligible for additional remedial hours provided by the Education Ministry, and an official joint commission that will discuss the legal status of the Christian schools will be established. The schools’ status — currently “unofficial but recognized” — has negatively impacted the amount of funding the government allocates to them.
Although the Christian schools would receive full government funding if they became public schools, Church officials say doing so would strip the schools of their independence and Christian character. They note that two independent ultra-Orthodox school systems receive full funding even though they are not part of the public-school system.
Under this week’s agreement, all Israeli Christians schools will reduce elementary-school tuition by 25% and compensate students for days lost due to the 27-day strike.
The secretariat called the agreement “a wonderful achievement, as we have not only received a one-time sum, but the establishment of a committee that will deal with the change of the legal status of the schools that will bring a long-term solution.”
The secretariat said the support it received during the month of the strike from members of the Israeli government, including many parliamentarians, “as well as the public exposure in Israeli and international media, will provide a platform to implement any positive recommendations that the commission will have for Christian schools.”
Wadie Abunassar, a consultant who worked closely with the secretariat and the Catholic Church in matters related to the strike, called the agreement a “partial victory.”
‘Almost Total Consensus to Help’
“We started our information campaign below zero, and now the issue is known locally and internationally. Initially, the Education Ministry was offering us peanuts, a few million shekels, and were even refusing to meet our bishops. Now, we’re receiving 50 million shekels, and hundreds of teachers will now receive training paid for by the government. The third victory is that the Education Ministry was almost isolated politically. We had support from the Israeli political left and the right. There was almost a total consensus to help our schools. People felt we were talking about a just cause,” Abunassar said, noting that Jewish schools symbolically joined the strike one day out of a sense of solidarity.
Abunassar said the fight is not over: “We are entering a new phase of negotiations. We want a permanent solution. Our goal is equal rights and relations built on mutual respect and the understanding that our schools were created with a special vocation. It is the right of every religion and denomination to keep its own heritage and values, while respecting the rule of the state.”
Father Abdel Masih Fahim, head of the Catholic Church’s Christian Schools’ office, said the agreement is only a “first step” in the schools’ struggle for full recognition by the Ministry of Education.
“Our goal is recognition and equality with all other Israeli schools, our children with other children,” Father Fahim said. “We hope the committee being formed will take our goals into consideration.”
He said, “This is not yet a total victory.”
Michele Chabin is the Register’s Middle East correspondent.