Palestinian teachers, students strike in Israel over school budget cuts

More than 30,000 Palestinian students miss school; protesters say budget cuts, new tuition policies are biased

More than 30,000 Palestinian students missed the start of a new school year this week after 47 Christian schools in Israel launched a strike to protest state policies that staff and community members say are cutting off financial support to their institutions.

In recent years, Israel’s Ministry of Education has cut vital funding to the schools and imposed caps on how much tuition they can charge. “The cuts on the one hand, and the circular restricting collections on the other are dealing a death blow to the Christian schools,” one principal told Israeli news website Haaretz.

Private Christian schools are among Israel’s best performing educational institutions, established by churches hundreds of years before the founding of Israel. Although they serve Palestinian children of all religions, they play an important role in anchoring Christians to the Holy Land, where years of discrimination and economic hardship have caused the community to dwindle to just 1.6 percent of the population, according to The Holy Land Christian Ecumenical Foundation.

Christian schools, which fall under the Ministry of Education’s “unofficially recognized” category, teach Israel’s core curriculum, supplemented with lessons about religion and Palestinian history.

In the past, Israel covered 60 to 75 percent of the schools’ operating budgets. Over the past five years, however, the Ministry of Education decreased its funding to just 29 percent, according to Haaretz. To recoup the difference, schools raised tuitions. But last summer Israel imposed a cap on tuition hikes set so low that many schools say they can no longer afford to cover their expenses.

Christian School administrators point out that while their budgets have decreased, those of ultra-Orthodox Jewish schools, called yeshivas, have increased to the point where they're now fully funded. Yeshivas, which are also “unofficially recognized,” do not teach the state's curriculum and have significantly lower matriculation rates than Christian schools, Haaretz reported.

Teachers, students and community members protested against the disparity in funding on Thursday in the city of Ramle, following earlier protests in Haifa, Nazareth and Shfaram, according to Haaretz.

In June, hundreds of Palestinian high school students protested in front of Israel’s Ministry of Education, accusing the government of trying to force Christian schools into the state system.

While Israel’s Christian schools are known for their academic rigor, state schools have been accused of providing unequal education to Palestinian students. A recent report found that the state allots $1,100 per year per Jewish student, but just $192 per Arab student in the state system.

Palestinian parents also prefer to enroll their children in Christian schools because there they will learn about Palestinian history, including the Nakba — an Arabic term for the expulsion of two-thirds of the Palestinian population from what became Israel ahead of the state’s founding in 1948. Israeli state schools do not teach about the Nakba and other aspects of Palestinian history.

Palestinians also seek out Christian schools because they foster awareness among Palestinian students of their identity and status in Israel.

Public schools serving Palestinian students across Israel have also announced strikes, mostly in protest of unsafe or overcrowded conditions, news website Maan News reported.

The Parent’s Committee of the Abu Wadi School in Kseifa village in southern Israel suspended classes on Thursday, saying the classrooms were overcrowded, Maan said.

In Haifa, in northern Israel, the Parent’s Committee at Huwar School for Alternative Teaching also announced an open strike, according to Maan. They called for improved facilities and smaller class sizes.

An open strike was also announced by the Parent’s Committee in Arara, which said school conditions were unsafe for the children. A spokesman for Arara’s committee, Ayyub Jazmawi, told Maan there were electrical boxes near water sources in the classroom, which he said are “illegal.”

With additional reporting by Lisa Goldman

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