Israel’s Christian schools face discrimination
Ramallah - About 33,000 students at the 47 Christian schools across Israel were back in school a day after a funding deal was struck between the school boards of Christian denominations and the Israeli Ministry of Education.
Under the agreement, 3,000 teachers and members of the school boards ended a strike that began September 1st and coincided with the schools’ first day of the fall semester. The one-year agreement, announced September 27th, allows the schools, which primarily serve Palestinian Christian and Muslim students, to receive about $12.5 million in increased government funding.
However, the deal does not go far enough in addressing inequities in education in the country, Christian leaders say. They point out that the new funding amount brings the total allocation to approximately what the schools received from the state a few years ago.
They also said the Education Ministry was discriminating against them by making steep cuts in financial aid to the “unofficial, but recognised” private Christian schools. Israel had funded 45% of the $52 million per year it costs to run the schools but over the last decade cut support to 29%. The remainder of school funding comes from donations and students’ tuition. However, Israel has reduced school fees this year by nearly 40%, which helps Palestinian Christian families financially.
Unofficial ultra-orthodox Jewish school networks, similar to the Christian schools and teaching about 200,000 students, benefit from 100% state funding.
Saja al-Kilani, who has a 4-year-old daughter attending a Christian school in Nazareth, said the diminishing Israeli state funding “aims at tightening the noose on schools that have a Palestinian cultural role”.
“Israel doesn’t wish to see special schools for Arabs and wants to close them down,” added Kilani, 32. She insisted she was “let down” by the deal.
“The agreement is a way to get around the strike,” she said. “I expected the government to increase funding to 50% or 60% but the outcome was nothing like that.”
Nimer Bransi, 55, headmaster of the Latin Elementary School in the Arab village of Reineh, was less sceptical about the deal.
He said that when negotiations started, the school boards demanded extra Israeli funds estimated at four times what they eventually received.
“It is not enough considering the large number of students who study in these schools, but it’s better than nothing,” he said.
Rula Nussir, 30, a media teacher in the Latin Patriarchate school Jaffa of Nazareth, urged patience, saying: “We must be realistic. It is not easy to negotiate with Israel.”
Nadim Nashif, director of the Association for Arab Youth Baladna and father of a 12-year-old boy who studies in the Convent of Nazareth School in Haifa, said: “The Israeli government and the intelligence control the Israeli public school system, while in church-run schools the teachers who are employed by the church have more freedom.”
“The cuts in budget indicate that the Israeli government is trying to control private education. This is an issue of control and intimidation,” Nashif said. Ending the strike is not an indication that students and their families are satisfied with the agreement. “We are not asking for charity. We have the right to be treated equally and without being discriminated for who we are. This is just a temporary solution,” Bransi said.
The Christian schools follow the Israeli curriculum but also teach students about their original culture and heritage.
Widely known as Arab-Israelis, Palestinians are estimated at 1.7 million, or about 21% of Israel’s population. They have blood ties to those under Israeli occupation in the West Bank and the Gaza Strip.
The funding agreement came before Palestinians killed two Israelis in separate attacks in Jerusalem during the first weekend in October.
Police killed the attackers and banned Palestinians from East Jerusalem from entering the Old City for two days. In Jerusalem, Israel has been encouraging Jewish visits, and even prayers, at al- Aqsa Mosque, Islam’s third holiest shrine, kindling violence in September between Palestinian worshippers and Israeli police.
Israel is expanding West Bank settlement construction in violation of international law. In Gaza, Israel maintains a tight grip on the city’s borders as part of a siege imposed in 2007 and has isolated the enclave.
The moves are coupled with a stalemate in peace negotiations with Palestinians and the emergence of an extreme Israeli cabinet. Some cabinet members have publicly called for eradicating the Palestinian population.