Christian schools in Israel closed down on Sept 1st, the beginning of the school year, to protest the heavy funding cuts they have faced over the last years. Recent negotiations between school representatives and government officials have failed to solve the issue. School leaders are demanding that the government raise subsidies to equal the amounts received by Jewish schools.
Some 33,000 pupils, the vast majority of them Christians of Arab descent, attend the 47 Christian primary and secondary schools in Israel affiliated with the Catholic, Orthodox and Protestant churches. However, there are also some Muslim families who send their children to these schools because their student academic performance is above the country average.
The Ministry of Education has placed the Christian schools in the category of, “recognized, but not official.” School sources say that the ministry has reduced the subsidies from 34 percent of the total operating costs two years ago to the current 29 percent.
Parents now pay around 5000 Israeli shekels ($1300) annually per child. Many of the Christian families belong to the lower socioeconomic segment of the population. To provide affordable tuition for parents, donors such as churches pitch in to help keep the schools in operation.
The Ministry of Education suggested moving the schools to the category of “Christian public schools,” meaning the schools would receive full funding, but lose their independence and, many fear, identity. The state would have a say in appointments of teachers and principals and the acceptance of pupils. In addition, the state would rent the school buildings and have the right to use them for the general public use in the afternoons or during school vacations. The school buildings are located on church premises.
During a meeting on September 9 between school representatives and officials from the Office of the Prime Minister and the Ministries of Education and Finance, an offer was presented to raise the subsidies back to 34 percent, starting with the 2015-16 school year. It was also suggested that the amount schools are allowed to ask parents to pay should be raised.
Botrus Mansour, director of Nazareth Baptist School, which has 1000 students, is participating on the negotiation committee and rejects the offer. “They need to give back the five percent anyhow, because this is part of the coalition agreement. They did not speak about giving us the money back for the last two years.”
On September 9, a protest tent was set up in front of the office of the Ministry of Education in Nazareth. “We also ask parents to register their children in the education departments in the municipalities. This is a way to put pressure on the Ministry of Education. In Nazareth, we have 13,000 students in Christian schools, but the municipality has no place for them. I do not expect that the children will go to the public schools.”
In order to limit the damage to students’ education caused by the strike, directors of schools are discussing ways to compensate for the missed lessons. On September 9, many schools opened their doors to meet the parents. Botrus Mansour states, “We explained to the parents what is happening and we listened to them. It was very crowded with some people even standing outside. Most parents are very supportive, but some have started to become frustrated.”
His brother, Bader Mansour, the Development Officer of the Association of Baptist Churches in Israel, wrote on the “Come and See” website that the Christian schools are a safe-haven for Christians in Israel, who are a minority sub-group within the Arab minority. “While they teach most of the subjects taught in public schools, they also emphasize the local Christian identity and are a key in strengthening the witness in the land where God dwelt and became one of us.”
Wadie Abunassar, advisor to the Catholic Bishops Conference, notes that the government is cutting the Value Added Tax by one percent and has lowered taxes on beer. “But they can’t find the 200 million shekels (50 million US dollars) for Christian schools we ask. This is for 33,000 pupils who have citizenship.”
In addition to protest tents, Abunassar says, representatives of Christian education have considered appealing to the international community and Jewish leaders during the High Jewish holidays.
Abunassar notes that there is a rise in radicalization throughout the levels of Israeli society. “This is not only reflected in attacks on churches and holy sites, but also in negligence from the Israeli government.”
Father, we pray for Your children in Israel whose education is on the line right now. We pray for negotiations to quickly establish a satisfactory resolution to the current impasse. We pray that you will provide funds for education and relieve the current added burden on parents and churches. And Father, we pray for the Christians who are suffering in indirect ways to stand faithfully in their Savior’s Name. Grant wisdom to church and school leaders as well as to parents as they consider how to manage this current situation in ways that honor Christ, and provide education for their children that “strengthens their witness in the land where You dwelt and became one of us.” In the Name of Jesus, the Shepherd of Israel, Amen.