Israel’s cash-strapped Christian schools get overdue grant

Church official welcomes 50-million-shekel funding, but says network of 47 schools still lacks rights, respect

Dov Lieber is a former Times of Israel Arab affairs correspondent.

Hundreds of Israeli Christians hold banners in a rally against what they said was state discrimination in funding their schools, at the foot of the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth on September 1, 2015 (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)
Hundreds of Israeli Christians hold banners in a rally against what they said was state discrimination in funding their schools, at the foot of the Basilica of the Annunciation in Nazareth on September 1, 2015 (Ahmad Gharabli/AFP)

Christian schools in Israel facing financial collapse will be able, starting Wednesday, to access a large government grant that is months overdue, but are still negotiating a long-term solution to their funding woes.

The network of 47 schools, which are almost all Catholic and cater to some 33,000 mostly Muslim children, took strike action at the start of the school year last September over budget cuts that officials said amounted to hundreds of millions of shekels.

The pope himself took note of the row, raising it with President Reuven Rivlin when the latter visited the Vatican last September.

The strike ended when the Education Ministry agreed to pay a one-time allowance of NIS 50 million (approximately $12 million) to the school system, which is considered “unofficial but recognized,” and agreed to form a committee to explore long-term solutions to the budgetary crisis. That panel became known as the Shoshani Committee.

President Reuven Rivlin meeting Pope Francis at the Vatican, September 3, 2015. Haim Zach/GPO)
President Reuven Rivlin meeting Pope Francis at the Vatican, September 3, 2015. Haim Zach/GPO)

Under the original deal struck a year ago, the Education Ministry was supposed to transfer the NIS 50 million to the Social Equality Ministry, which would then ensure it was disbursed to the various schools in the network. However, a government official told The Times of Israel in May that the Education Ministry declined to hand over the grant on the grounds that the schools were unofficial institutions that fall outside of their purview.

On Wednesday, Social Equality Minister Gila Gamliel (Likud) took the matter into her own hands. Her ministry published a grant that will allow Christian elementary and middle schools to access all 50 million shekels already earmarked for the educational network.

Wadia Abu Nasser, a spokesperson for the Catholic Church in Israel, said, “We appreciate the efforts of the [social equality] minster, but we are wondering why it came so late.”

“The problem isn’t about the 50 million shekels,” Nasser said, but it is rather how the schools are generally treated despite their success as some of the Jewish state’s best educational institutions.

Arab Christians, about 2 percent of Israeli’s population, consistently score higher in the high school matriculation exam than any other community in Israel.

Arab Israeli Christian schoolchildren play soccer at the Terra Sancta School in the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Ramle, May 26, 2015. (AP/Oded Balilty)
Arab Israeli Christian schoolchildren play soccer at the Terra Sancta School in the mixed Jewish-Arab city of Ramle, May 26, 2015. (AP/Oded Balilty)

Father Abdel Masih, head of the Office of Christian Schools in Israel, said he is still negotiating a long-term solution with the Education Ministry to ensure financial stability for his schools. Until now, he said, Christian schools have leaned on foreign donors to stay afloat.

Masih also said he is fighting to ensure Christian schools are given equal benefits from the Education Ministry, including paid sick days for teachers, which educators in Christian schools are not currently entitled to.

“In the end, if you help our students, you are helping all of Israel. We are a part of the whole and proud to be a part of the whole,” Masih said.

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