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Israel’s funding policy on Christian schools spurs controversy

Analysis: Government limits funding for Palestinian Christian schools while boosting budgets of ultra-Orthodox yeshivas

Hundreds of Palestinian high school students demonstrated in front of Israel’s Ministry of Education last week, protesting government attempts to force private Christian schools into the state system by starving them of funds. Christian schools in Israel have a reputation for academic rigor, producing multilingual graduates who boost the ranks of the professional and business elite of Israel’s Palestinian citizenry. The Foreign Ministry likes to showcase them as evidence that Israel offers equality to all its citizens. But the Ministry of Education is cutting the budget allotment to these schools and capping the amount parents are permitted to pay in tuition.

Most of the 47 Christian schools in Israel are run by Catholic orders and a few by Protestants, employing 3,000 teachers and accommodating 30,000 pupils, including Muslims. They were established decades before the founding of Israel and remain important community institutions. The Christian schools fall under the government’s “unofficially recognized” category; they teach the Ministry of Educations’ core curriculum, supplemented with their own, and until recently received 60 to 75 percent of their budgets from the state. (Fundraising and tuition make up the remainder.)

Over the past five years, the government has reduced its budget allocation to these Christian schools to the point that state funding now provides about 45 percent of their budgets. That has resulted in higher tuition fees, which imposes a hardship on many of the students who come from economically disadvantaged households.

Last summer, the situation became critical after the ministry set a cap so low on the amount the schools may raise through tuition that they could no longer make up the shortfall caused by the shrinking state budget allocation. Father Fahim Abdelmasih, the head of the Christian Schools’ Office in Israel, said that six months of negotiating with the Ministry of Education yielded no solution, calling the tuition caps a “death sentence” for Christian schools in Israel. 

While budget allocations for private Christian schools have steadily shrunk, the private yeshivas serving Israel’s ultra-Orthodox Jewish population have received increased allotments, to the point that the state now covers 100 percent of their budgets. The yeshivas do not teach the Ministry of Education’s core curriculum, and their matriculation rate hovers at a dismal 10 percent.

State schools that serve Palestinian citizens of Israel are notoriously underfunded, with a recent report finding that the state allots $1,100 per year per Jewish student versus $192 per Arab student in the state system. No surprise, then, that average matriculation rates at state-run Arab high schools are about 27 percent, compared with 95 percent for the leading Christian schools. What’s more, teachers at state schools in the Arab sector must be vetted by Shin Bet, Israel’s internal security service. And the schools’ state-mandated curriculum places draconian limitations on teaching Palestinian history and literature.

Teachers at Christian schools are not vetted by Shin Bet — which some see as one of the reasons the ministry seeks to bring them into the state system. Sawsan Zaher — an attorney who directs the social and economic rights unit at Adalah, which promotes Palestinians’ rights in Israel — framed the issue in terms of political control.

For example, the history curriculum in the Christian schools, she said, includes the Nakba — the Arabic term for the expulsion of two-thirds of the Palestinian population from what became Israel during the conflict over the founding of the state in 1948. They also teach civics from the perspective of the Arab minority in a Jewish majority state, creating awareness among young Palestinian citizens of Israel of their rights and identity.

Reached by phone, a representative for the Ministry of Education refused to answer questions and insisted that an Al Jazeera reporter submit them via text message, promising a call back. So far, none has been received.

Abdelmasih said administrators, teachers and parents objected to joining the state school system for fear it would undermine the unique values taught at the schools. “We teach the children to interact courteously and openly,” he said. “We have open relations with all the Jewish and Muslim schools and work toward a positive way of getting along in Israel. We want to stop the stereotypes.”

Asked about reports in the Israeli media that the Vatican planned to intervene and approach the Ministry of Education, he hesitated, saying he had not heard a definitive response on the Holy See’s intentions.

Although she sees the government’s actions as politically motivated, Zaher is challenging them on legal grounds. Israel is a signatory to the 1961 UNESCO Convention Against Discrimination in Education. She plans to challenge the state’s increase in funding to Jewish religious schools while cutting its budget allotment to Christian schools in the same “unofficially recognized” category.

The new minister of education is Naftali Bennett, the leader of the far-right Jewish Home party, who advocates annexing most of the West Bank and opposes the establishment of a Palestinian state. But the potential diplomatic damage to Israel’s image from action against the Christian schools may prompt others in the government to try to restrain the Education Ministry from executing its plans.

Even though Israel’s current government is the most right-wing in the country’s history, it has already shown an inclination to continue the familiar pattern of announcing policy changes that prompt international outrage and then rescinding them before they go into effect.

The most recent example was the minister of defense’s proposal to institute separate buses in Israel for Palestinian workers from the West Bank, which prompted a storm of domestic and international criticism before Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stepped in and squelched the idea. That example has led advocates for the Christian schools to suggest that a combination of pressure and diplomacy from the Vatican could prompt the Ministry of Education to back down. 

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