About 33,000 students at 47 Christian schools are back in class after school officials and the Israeli Ministry of Education struck a deal on Sunday to end a four-week strike.
The one-year agreement means the schools will have about $12.5 million in increased government funding.
Christian leaders had complained that the Education Ministry was discriminating against them by making deep cuts in financial support to the “unofficial but recognized” private Christian schools. The government had funded 45 percent of the $52 million per year it costs to run the schools, but over the last decade cut its support to 29 percent. It also issued new restrictions on tuition.
Similar unofficial ultra-orthodox school networks, which train about 200,000 students, benefit from 100 percent state funding.
Christian leaders were cautious but hopeful that the agreement will lead to further progress.
“I think it is a good achievement for the first stage as the additional funding will help us close the deficit and lower tuition,” said Botrus Mansour, head of Nazareth Baptist School.
According to a lengthy statement released on Sunday, both sides have agreed to create new commissions to resolve their differences by March 2016.
“We are looking to the commission to bring recommendations for legal action and possible legislation to change our legal status and thus get more funding,” Mansour said. “This struggle has brought us Christians from all denominations closer to one another. The Christian manner in which this struggle was handled (nonviolence, respect, inclusiveness) reflected the Christian way and was noticed by the Israeli public and media.”
Public sentiment in Israel ran strongly in favor of the Christian schools. “The government and the Education Ministry cannot continue to punish the students in the country’s Christian schools. Israel must carry out its obligations as a democratic state toward these students, and return them to the classroom,” editorialized Haaretz, a leading daily newspaper.
The strike received an enormous boost in public visibility when, on September 20, the teachers unions at public high schools in Israel declared a two-hour solidarity strike. Non-Christian Arab schools also joined the strike for one day. Reuven Rivlin, Israel’s president, and Naftali Bennett, minister of education, at one point attempted to broker a compromise, but to no avail. Several Knesset members also called for full funding for Christian schools. Shaun Casey, US Special Representative for Religion and Global Affairs with the State Department, also met with Christian school leaders to help address the situation.
Internationally, members of key US groups threw their support behind the strike through Pilgrims of Ibillin, which supports the Mar Elias schools in northern Israel. Jewish groups also showed their support. The solidarity strikes are “an example of Israeli society's solidarity towards our minorities, a lesson for all school students,” said Ofer Bavly, general director of the Jewish Federation of Chicago in Israel.
The Ministry of Education offered full funding if the schools agreed to become officially part of the public school system, along with assurances that the state would recognize and maintain their Christian identity. But Christian leaders rejected the offer.
“All we are asking for is equality. Our Christian schools in Israel have served Christians, Muslims, and Jews for decades,” said Mansour. (Nearly all of the students at those schools are part of Israel’s Arab minority. About half of the students are Christian; the rest are Muslim.) “We are dealing with a situation where the foundations of our educational institutions are in jeopardy because of the cutting of funding which specifically targets Christian schools. While Israel receives abundant support from the American Christian community, the country cannot afford to ignore the needs of Christians living in the land.”
On Sunday, the Secretariat of Christian Schools, which called the compromise a “wonderful achievement,” released a statement that announced:
- “Our teachers will be included in the different professional development programs of the Ministry of Education that they were previously excluded from.
- “Our students will be included in the additional strengthening hours provided by the Ministry of Education for different subjects—hours that they did not get in the past.
- “The establishment of an official commission from the Ministry of Education and representatives of the Secretariat (equal representatives of each side). [The] chairman of commission will be appointed by both sides. This commission will bring forward its recommendations to the Minister of Education by the end of March 2016. This commission will discuss the legal status of the Christian schools in Israel—a matter that will impact the funding of the schools.
- “The establishment of a joint commission for cooperation between the Ministry of Education and representatives of the Secretariat to deal with matters that will be raised by both parties.
- “The Ministry of Education will pay the monthly payments for the Christian schools as usual and the schools will commit to compensate the students for the days lost during the strike. Therefore each Christian school will reduce tuition by 25 percent for primary school students.”
Many of the 47 schools were founded by the Roman Catholic Church before the state of Israel existed. Government reports indicate that graduates attend university at higher rates than most public school students.