JERUSALEM — Thousands of Israeli Christians traveled to Jerusalem on Sunday from all over the country to demonstrate against government budget cuts to Christians schools so severe it prompted Church officials to launch an open-ended school strike.

More than 33,000 Christian and Muslim Arab students in 47 Christian schools, all but seven of them Catholic, have been affected by the strike and the funding shortage fueling it.

Standing in the blistering heat, the demonstrators, waving yellow-and-white flags distributed by the Latin Patriarchate of Jerusalem, and placards demanding equality, called on the government to provide Christian schools with the same funding it provides most Jewish and Muslim schools.

“For us, this is a kind of prayer,” said Wadie Abunassar, a consultant to the Catholic Church, at the demonstration site opposite the prime minister’s office. “We’re here to demand equal rights; nothing more, nothing less.”

Officials from the Office of the Christian Schools in Israel and administrators of non-Catholic schools declared the strike in late August, after a year and a half of negotiations with the Ministry of Education failed to secure the funding Christian leaders say is necessary to keep the schools running.

At issue, they say, are a series of government budget cuts over the past six years that have gradually eroded the amount of money semi-private schools, known in Israel as “unofficial but recognized” schools, can utilize to cover their operating costs. Making matters worse, the Education Ministry capped the amount of tuition these schools can charge parents.

The Ministry of Education declined to respond directly to the Register’s request for comment.

During negotiations, the Christian schools rejected the ministry’s suggestion to become “special schools” — a status that would permit them to charge higher tuition but not provide additional government funding — “because this will put a heavy load on the parents,” the Office of Catholic schools said in an Aug. 31 statement. Becoming public schools would mean a loss of autonomy, the officials said.

At the demonstration Father Abdel Masih, general director of Office of Christian Schools, said he and other educational officials and Church leaders met with Education Minister Naftali Bennett last week at a meeting hosted by Israeli President Reuven Rivlin, who has reached out to the Christian community on several occasions.

“We emerged from the meeting hopeful, but nothing has come of it,” Father Masih said.

 

Double Standard?

Father Masih noted that the Ministry of Education fully funds two non-public Haredi Jewish school networks and that it could do the same for the Christian schools if it wanted to. Haredi Judaism is a branch of Orthodox Judaism noted for its rejection of modern secular culture.

“At present, the government subsidies amount to just 29% of our operating expenses, instead of the 100% it gives to the Jewish schools,” whose Haredi lawmakers are vital to the existence of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s narrow coalition government.

“Additionally,” Father Masih said, “the ministry refuses to fund our school’s remedial classes and Ofek (a program for gifted students). And our teachers don’t receive the same continuing-education courses provided to other Israeli teachers.”

The government, he said, “found a solution for Shas,” the formerly unofficial but recognized Haredi school network established by the powerful Shas political party. “Why won’t it find a solution for our schools? Our children are Israeli and should have the same rights.”

The Ministry of Education said in a statement that Christian schools “are supported equally, the way other unofficial but recognized institutions are supported,” and that it is holding “ongoing meetings with representatives of the Christian educational institutions.”

Although the Joint List, a joint Arab-Israeli political party with 13 seats in the 120-seat parliament, fully supports the Christian school’s funding demands, the party has limited clout because it sits in the opposition and rarely joins forces with Jewish parties.

Arabs comprise about 20% of Israel’s population.

Israel’s Christian community is smaller still, representing less than 2% of the population, but considers itself part of the larger Arab community, especially since many Muslim students attend Christian schools. The day after the demonstration, 450,000 Arab students staged a one-day solidarity strike.

 

Among Israel’s Best Schools

MK Ayman Odeh, who heads the Joint List and attended Sunday’s demonstration, told the Register that Christian schools, which consistently rank among the best schools in Israel, are vital to the advancement of the Arab community.

“These schools represent a tiny fraction of the schools in Israel, yet nearly a third of Arab university graduates and 87% of Arab high-tech workers graduate from there. How can we talk about equal opportunity on one hand, but on the other hand hurt the very schools that are succeeding in breaking through the glass ceiling?”

Standing in a shady spot to avoid the oppressive heat, teacher Ketty Bassal said all 500 of the students at her school, Terra Sancta School in Jaffa, just south of Tel Aviv, “have spent the past week sitting at home. We are Israel citizens, and our children deserve the same rights as every other citizen. If the government can fund Jewish schools outside the public-school system, why can’t it fund ours? If it won’t that’s discrimination.”

Raed Fakhoury, a father of three who made the three-and-a-half-hour journey to Jerusalem from his home in the northern port city of Acre with his 13-year-old daughter Aline, said his three children receive “an excellent” education, and he wants it to stay that way.

“We don’t want to simply maintain our schools,” Fakhoury said. “We want to improve them. What our neighbors receive, we should receive.”

Sohair Simaan, who made the two-hour drive from her home in Eilaboum, an Arab village in the north, said she came to the protest not because she has children, but because the cause is so important.

We want to ensure that not only this generation of children, but the next generation, receives a quality education.”

Simaan called on Christians and others around the world to support the schools’ struggle.

“We’re a minority, and when you’re a minority, it’s hard. Struggling alone is hard, but with support from our brothers and sisters abroad, we can achieve anything.”

Michele Chabin is the Register’s Middle East correspondent.