This is probably the first time that Christian schools in Israel demonstrated in the courtyard of the Israeli ministries in Jerusalem. But their cup is full. On Wednesday, May 27, under a blazing sun, delegations from the 47 Christian schools present in Israel of all different denominations, gathered in the courtyard of the Ministry of Education under the authority of the “Office of Israeli Catholic and Christian schools.” School leaders (often religious brothers or sisters), members of their teaching staff and parents were there supported by the remarkable presence of many bishops, such as Monsignor Giacinto-Boulos Marcuzzo, Monsignor Mousa al-Hajj, Monsignor William Schomali, Monsignor Joseph Jules Zerey and Monsignor George Wadih Bakouni.
Alongside them were three members of the Knesset, Israeli Arab MPs, including Ayman Odeh, the leader of the Unity List (Al-Qa’ima al-Mushtarika in Arabic) accompanied by Jamal Zahalka and Basel Ghattas. Everyone came together to oppose the discrimination that Christian schools are facing in Israel. It is essentially a matter of financial discrimination in those schools whose status is seen as “recognized but not public,” but also another possible risk is a change in that status that many protesters fear would have them lose their Christian character.
Brother Abdel Masih Fahimm OFM, Director of the Office of the Schools and the Director of the Terra Sancta College in Ramleh, led the movement. “At the heart of the problem is the lack of equality between the 47 Christian schools and the Jewish schools in Israel,” he summarized. It translates to “the reducton of our subsidies, the exclusion of which we are the object of the “New Horizon” (or Ofek Chadash) project, a lack of equality between how teachers at Christian Schools and how teachers at the Jewish schools are treated.”
The “New Horizon” reform has been implemented since 2008 with the objective of enhancing the status of teachers and raising their wages but also providing equal opportunities to all students and raising their grades and, as a general rule, improving conditions in schools.
Gradual reductions in subsidies (Editor’s note: a 45 percent cut over the past decade) have been significantly detrimental to Christian schools in Israel. Many of them, as is the case of the Custody’s Terra Sancta Schools, which existed long before the creation of the Jewish state. Collectively, 30,000 young Israeli Christians and Muslims are enrolled in Christian schools.Brother Abdel Massih said the demonstration would be “a first step in the protest.” This budget problem has lasted for a long time. It has been exacerbated in recent years, continued the Franciscan. Our schools receive 60 to 70 percent of subsidies while some Jewish schools can receive over 100 percent.”
Negotiations with the Ministry of Education are in a stalemate. With the new government, the Office of Christian Schools wants the new minister, Naftali Bennett and the Ministry of Education to lend an attentive ear to the protesters’ demands.
“These new cuts will significantly harm our children,” exclaimed Samer, a parent who participated in the demonstration. This is a Christian school and place of learning of high caliber, and this is something that the department wants to control and they want us to exactly as they please. Today we ask the Ministry to raise its hand, listen to the schools and and subsidize this system, just like they do every other system in the country.” This is what Israeli law usually ensures.
One aspect of the identity of these schools is certainly the Christian teaching that it offers to its students. “The sheer fact of seeing a priest or a nun is fundamental,” said Maha Khouriyeh, a teacher at school of the Sisters of Nazareth in Haifa. “We often have convents, and we always have a chapel on the school grounds, things that would disappear if we were to move to the ‘official’(public) school status, like the other Jewish schools in the country,” she said. Protesters believe this is an underlying intention on the part of the ministry.
“The proper functioning of our schools is measured by the results at the end of the year. Ours are much better.” In fact, four of the 15 best schools in the country are Christian, and the grades on the official state diploma are often close to 100 percent. Moreover, these schools that represent four percent of secondary schools in Israel have educated 30 percent of Arab graduates of Israeli universities.
Between applauses, brandished signs, journalists and photographers, as well as representatives of political and religious parties, took turns speaking.
“These schools are a treasure for us and for society as a whole,” said Ayman Odeh of the United Arab List. They contribute to the state by offering our children a good education. They take on much of the costs and they use their own premises. In return, the state, for political reasons and for reasons of historical vengeance, treats them unfairly. We will present the matter to the Knesset on behalf of the United Arab List for debate. But above all, together we will fight against this discrimination and we will fight for equality between Arab Christian schools and Jewish religious schools. “We will stay together until we get justice!” he exclaimed. “We not only want a reversal of the situation,” he stressed, “but we especially want to be on an equal footing with the other Jewish schools in the country.”
Speaking in turn, Monsignor Giacinto-Boulos Marcuzzo briefly spoke about social diversity. Whether Druze, Bedouin, Jewish, Arab or Christian, he explained, these schools deserve any specific education, faithful to their traditions and to their cultural heritage, that the State of Israel had thus far respected since its foundation.
“We want to cooperate with the authorities and the Ministry of Education, he continued. We are the representatives of education in our country, of the people present in this land, and of our Church. We ask the Ministry to respect our system and its citizens. We have an multi-step plan in our demands but we hope that we do not have to take it to that level. Cooperation between the two parties will benefit everyone’s progress, and it will also benefit our schools and the progress of education in Israel.”
Key positions obtained by the Shas religious party at the head the government’s educational committee should be able to facilitate dialogue with the Office of Christian schools, according to Ayman Odeh and Basel Ghattas. “Today we are, through the power of religious parties, more likely to carry out the project, while this was not the case a few years ago, said Basel Ghattas. But it is also important to have examples to follow, he said. The Church canonized two Palestinian saints who played an important role in education. And we want to use this strength in order to cling to our Arab identity as Christians, and our schools have a major role in this mission and we are indebted to them.”
Before the end of the demonstration, everyone was invited to remain informed about the ministry’s response and to stay mobilized, as it may well be that next September, a strike with 30,000 students and with all of the educational staff could begin.
As a reminder, the Custody has five schools in Israel, all represented at the demonstration.