(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM/THE JERUSALEM POST)
As the children went back to school, we parents greeted September 1 with great eagerness, and not just because the summer vacation was beginning to get on everyone’s nerves.
No – we sent them back full of optimism and enthusiasm, grateful for the formal education system provided by our tax money and with it the opportunity to learn, grow and become a productive member of society. We have made sure that our children know that their access to education should never be taken for granted, and that there are places in the world where access to education is an impossible luxury.
Yet here we are in Israel, and some 30,000 pupils of Christian schools are being denied the privilege and responsibility of formal education. The Christian schools are striking, forced into a corner by the Education Ministry, whose decisions are strangling the 47 Christians schools in Israel.
Church-run schools have been part of this country’s history for hundreds of years. Long before there was any Education Ministry for the State of Israel, the Church took responsibility for educating children of all faiths. Christian schools currently teach Christian and Muslim students in almost equal numbers. They are proud of their unique history and religious identity, with no desire to join the state school system, Arab or Jewish. For decades these schools have been – like many haredi schools – recognized by the Education Ministry, but independent.
The ministry has been slashing funding to these schools for years, in one form or another. But when budget cuts continue year after year and are coupled with legislation that severely limits the amounts that parents are allowed to pay toward their children’s education, the doors have effectively been locked.
On September 7, the strike was expanded, when 450,000 students in the Arab school system stayed home in solidarity. Yet the issue remains unresolved, with many Jewish Israelis wondering why they should care.
Below, a few reasons why getting the Christian schools properly funded should matter to everyone who loves this country.
First, funding schools run by the Church is an investment in the country’s future. The Church-run schools are consistently among the best schools in the country. These schools, which educate both Christian and Muslim students, are one of most powerful tools for empowerment and social change in the Arab sector.
Developing a culture of excellence, educating for a global economy and instilling values of love and peace are precisely the kinds of initiatives that should receive extra funding, not less.
Second, inequality in Israeli society harms all of us, and our children.
There are networks of haredi schools, which similarly are outside the state system, and yet they receive several times more funding than these Christian schools. To limit funding to these independent schools makes perfectly good sense to me, so long as funding is the same amount per student in all “recognized but not official” schools.
And so long as parents and private donors can make up the differences.
Limiting amounts that parents can co-pay is an attempt to make sure that parents cannot purchase a better education for their children within the state system. That’s a noble idea.
But there needs to be the government funding that goes with it. The result cannot be no education.
Third, maintaining real and meaningful choice of schools should matter to all of us. It cannot be that schoolchoice is only limited to wealthy citizens or those willing to educate according to the requirements of the state. Independent schools that receive a combination of public and private funding are good for families and can potentially enlarge all the educational options open to all our children.
Mayor of Nazareth Ali Salem said, “This isn’t the schools’ private problem, but an issue for all of Arab society.”
He is right, but even more so – this isn’t an issue for Arab society, but for all of Israeli society. Encouraging excellence in education, maintaining distinctive cultural and religious identities, rejecting discrimination, upholding freedom of choice – these are issues for all of Israeli society to embrace and uphold.
The school year started under the symbol of “mutual and personal responsibility.” We were assured our children would get tolerance, anti-racism and anti-violence education in the first week. Yet here we sit with 33,000 children being deprived of an education due to the persistence of basic inequalities in our society.
The fact is this, Mr. Bennett: personal responsibility is not free. If we truly want to build a state of mutual responsibility, tolerance for difference and fairness for all, it will cost. Let’s start with the right to an education.
The writer is director for the Center for Studies in Jewish-Christian Relations at Yezreel Valley College in Afula. She can be contacted at [email protected]