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Arab state school students join Christian schools’ strike

Schools affiliated with Catholic Church have been shuttered since the start of term last week over cuts to their budgets

Christian students, teachers, and education workers, protest in front of the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on September 6, 2015. (Flash 90)
Christian students, teachers, and education workers, protest in front of the Prime Minister's Office in Jerusalem, on September 6, 2015. (Flash 90)

Some 450,000 Arab Israeli pupils stayed home on Monday as their schools called a strike in solidarity with Christian schools, which have been striking since the beginning of the school year last week.

Schools affiliated with the Catholic Church in Israel have been striking in protest over government cuts to their annual budgets.

On Sunday, thousands of people protested outside the Prime Minister’s Office in Jerusalem, demanding an increase to schools’ budgets. Some 30,000 Christian and Muslim pupils attend the Christian school system. Leaders of the Catholic Church in Israel also took part in the protest, as well as some Arab Israeli Knesset members and municipality heads.

The Christian schools are recognized by the state, but do not have official status like Jewish public schools. They therefore receive smaller funding and have more control over curriculum.

In their current semi-private status, the schools receive 75 percent of the funding given to schools in the public system. Father Abd el-Masih, head of the Christian schools’ directorial board, said on Sunday that the Education Ministry had proposed to resolve the crisis by giving the Christian schools public status. He rejected the proposal, saying it that would mean “to rip the schools from their history and tradition, some of which is hundreds of years old,” the Haaretz daily reported.

The board said there was no progress in negotiations to end the strike and that it would reconvene Monday evening to discuss further steps. One proposed sanction against the state would be to ban pilgrims and tourists from entering Christian holy sites, the report said. The decision could cost the state millions, especially before the holiday of Sukkot or Tabernacles, during which Christian sites and churches are flooded with tourists.

Leader of the Joint (Arab) list and the Hadash party Ayman Odeh leads the weekly Joint Arab list meeting at the Knesset, June 1, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)
Leader of the Joint (Arab) list and the Hadash party Ayman Odeh leads the weekly Joint Arab list meeting at the Knesset, June 1, 2015. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Currently, Christian schools have to charge parents NIS 4,000 (about $1,000) a year per student in order to make up for the cost of schooling. The schools want the Education Ministry to give them NIS 200 million per year so that they can avoid charging parents for additional fees, but the ministry recently offered only a tenth of that amount, the report said.

Several years ago, the Education Ministry started cutting the budgets transferred to schools from recognized streams that are not in the public school system. At the same time, a memo by the director-general of the ministry put limits on the amount of money that a school can ask parents to pay non-public schools, as well as the circumstances in which schools can ask parents to pay. Currently the schools charge NIS 4,000 per year per student, but the memo capped the expenditure at NIS 2,500 per pupil.

In late May, a representative of the Christian schools, which have been trying to get more funding for months, said the Education Ministry’s policy was to “dry up” the Christian schools. “This means a death verdict for Christians in the country,” the representative, Aouni Bathis, told Haaretz. “If they don’t want Christian education in Israel, they can say so out loud and not in a roundabout way.”

Senior officials in the Catholic Church in Israel told Haaretz that the negotiations between the ministry and the schools have given way to haggling over privileges in an effort to make the schools compromise and join the public system. “Unfortunately, in the Education Ministry and perhaps the cabinet there are people who realize this is a politically weak group that can be made to fold,” a senior church official was quoted as saying.

“Everybody understands that if they hurt a system like the yeshivas or the Shas school systems, the government will fall. In our case, nobody cares too much,” he said.

Academically, the Christian schools are considered the best in the Arab community, and are attended by Christian and Muslim students alike. According to Knesset member Ayman Odeh, who heads the Joint [Arab] List, “almost a third of Arab academics hail from the schools the government is now trying to silence. One cannot talk of equal opportunities and then harm the schools which succeed in breaking the glass ceiling.”

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