Thousands demonstrate against cuts to Christian Arab school system

Archbishop George Bacouni: We want our rights, we want equality and we want what we deserve.

Crosses in Jerusalem (photo credit: REUTERS)
Crosses in Jerusalem
(photo credit: REUTERS)
More than 3,500 parents, teachers and schoolchildren from the Christian Arab sector protested the morning of Sunday, September 6, against ongoing cuts to the Christian school network outside of the Prime Minister’s Office.
Senior representatives from the sector, including church leaders and Arab MKs, participated in the demonstrations, in protest at what were labelled as discriminatory policies of the Ministry of Education against Christian schools which have experienced severe budget cuts in recent years.
School children in the 47 Christian schools around the country have not yet returned to school despite the academic year beginning last week, because of the cuts, officials in the Christian community said.
Officials within the Christian education system are considering requesting from Church leaders in the country that Christian holy sites be close to tourists in protest at the situation. Legal steps and a possible appeal to the High Court of Justice are also being considered.
The schools in question are referred to as “Recognised but Unofficial,” meaning they receive 75 percent of the funding provided to full state schools, but are obligated to teach 75% of the teaching hours taught by state schools.
In practice, the Christian schools claim they teach 100 percent of the school hours taught by state schools in addition to religious studies which are not part of the standard state system curriculum.
Christian schools achieve some of the best results of all schools in Israel, with 69% of Christian pupils matriculating from high school compared to 61% in the Jewish sector and 50% in the Muslim sector according to the Central Bureau for Statistics.
However, for several years the Christian school system which includes 33,000 pupils, has faced severe cutbacks in funding. Today, the Christian schools receive just 29% of schools in the state school system, and are facing a shortfall of NIS 200 million for the new academic year, according to Father Abdul Massih Fahim, director general of the Christian schools network.
It has been approximately seven years since the schools received 75% percent funding.
The other education networks in Israel defined as “Recognised but Unofficial” are Maayan Hinuch Torani of Shas, and Independent Education of Agudat Yisrael. Both these networks continue to receive 75 percent of the state funding provided to fully state-run schools.
“This is the sixth day of school in which the children have not been able to go to school,” Fahim told The Jerusalem Post.
“Education Minister Naftali Bennett said last week when school started that all the schools began the new academic year with no problems and that all pupils have returned to class. How come he cannot see these 33,000 children who have not been able to return to their studies?” he asked.
Fahim said that since the schools are in deficit from previous years in which the requisite state funds were not transferred, the Christian school system was not able to pay its teachers at present.  He said that the ministry had offered an extra NIS 20 million in funding, which he said did not come close to closing the NIS 200 million deficit.
“We want our rights, we want equality and we want what we deserve,” Archbishop George Bacouni of the Melkite Greek Catholic diocese of Acre told the Post. The Melkite Church is the largest Christian denomination in Israel.
“These schools are serving society very well and they deserve to get their rights, to be treated as equally as other schools, we don’t want anything more.
“These people pay their taxes, they have a right to education and for the government to pay for it and to be treated the same as the Jewish schools in this kind of system.”
Bacouni said that on the one hand the state encourages integration into Israeli society “and yet it is discriminating against these people,” adding “If you want people to feel like they are citizens with full rights then you have to give them their rights.”
Hani Khakhounde, 13, a pupil in a Christian school in Ramle, said the situation was “very severe.”
“We want to learn like all other pupils in Israel. It’s very disturbing that all our pupils are at home, we want to go back to school, it’s our right, like all other Israeli children,” she said.
Fayze Mansour, a member of the Ramle municipal council and a former school principal, framed the lack of funds as a civil rights issue.
“It’s unthinkable that these schools, which are the leading schools in the country, are face discriminatory funding compared to the schools in the haredi sector like Shas and Agudah,” he said.
“We are citizens of the state, we are residents with equal rights and these schools are a source of pride for the state. Is this their reward, continual budget cuts?”
Mansour said that parents were being asked to pay up to NIS 6,000 a year per child to help fill the gaps in the schools’ budgets but said that this was not sufficient to plug the funding gaps and an unreasonable situation.
“How much more can the parents pay? Our demand is full equality, for the cuts to stop and the children to return to school.”
In response to the protest, the Education Ministry said that “Christian schools are funded in an equal manner as other Recognised but Unofficial schools in the State of Israel. It should be emphasized that no cuts cuts were made in the last year, and no cuts will be implemented in the coming year. The Education Ministry is having meetings with representatives of the educational institutes and all alternatives which were raised in these meetings were done with cooperation and without coercion.”
This article was originally published on Sunday, September 6.