Amid the recent chaos of Israel’s elections has been one overlooked constant: Arab lawmakers educated in Christian schools.
Of the 13 Arab members in the Knesset (MKs), Israel’s 120-member parliament, five are graduates of church-owned institutions.
Four of them are Muslim.
Across the Jewish state, 30 Christian schools educate 25,000 students—40 percent from Muslim families. This represents 5.5 percent of all Arab students, making the representation of their alumni in the Knesset much higher than in the general population.
Arab Christians total 140,000, or about 1.5 percent of Israel’s 9 million population and 7 percent of Arab Palestinian citizens. Catholic schools predominate, comprising 75 percent of Christian institutions, alongside Greek Orthodox, Anglican, Church of Scotland, Baptist, and independent bodies.
Better known—at least in Israel—are leading graduates in other sectors of society. Fahed Hakim directs the Nazareth Hospital, Johny Srouji is a senior vice president at Apple, and Salim Joubran served as a justice at the Supreme Court of Israel.
As Israel faces on November 1 its fifth election in three years, a handful of Christian school graduates populate the various electoral lists. Previous MKs served in three of the four now-disbanded Joint Lists of Arab political parties (excluding Islamists), and in two of the Jewish leftist groups, Labor and Meretz.
In the last four elections, no Israeli politician has been able to form a sustainable government. This deadlock is the result of deep and uncompromising fragmentation in the political scene, strangely caused by a single politician: former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu, nicknamed “Bibi.”
Known internationally for his 15 years in office, his right-wing policies, and his eloquent speeches, Bibi has also been indicted on accusations of bribery, fraud, and breach of trust. According to Israeli law as interpreted by the High Court, a trial of a prime minister does not disqualify them from service, only a conviction. Many believe that if he returns to power, Netanyahu will use his position to manipulate the judiciary to avoid prosecution.
Traditionally, the Israeli political scene is divided between right- and left-wing parties on the basis of a possible settlement with the Palestinians, and less according to economic policies. Netanyahu’s polarizing figure, however, has moved several right-wing parties from his own right-wing coalition into an opposing “anti-Bibi camp.” The amalgam includes left-wing socialist Zionists, right-wing liberals, and even an Islamic party, that struggled this year to maintain its coalition, collapsed in June, and ushered in another round of voting.
Amid such a fragmented scene that adds to the complication of governing a country torn by an ongoing conflict, Christian schools have emphasized tolerance and unity.
Emerging during the darkness of illiteracy during 18th- and 19th-century Ottoman rule in Palestine, Christian schools in Israel were founded by Western churches eager for service in the land of the Bible—the Holy Land. Hospitals, orphanages, and homes for the elderly were also among the European- and American-established institutions that became a beacon of hope and enlightenment for the local Christian community. Laying a foundation for modern education, this Christian advantage was maintained over the years.
The demographics of minority status, however, dictated a moderate Christian ethos. Emphasis was placed on moral values, and less on sharing the gospel. Muslim students are not obliged in most schools to attend Mass, chapel, or Bible class, with diversity championed as a social ideal.
Back in 2015, failure to receive the just allotment of Israeli government support—similar to charter schools in the US—prompted a 26-day strike by the Christian school system. During this time, which ended with a one-year reprieve, several graduates spoke out in favor of their alma maters.
“These are schools that have brought good for our society,” said Ayman Odeh, a Muslim MK, Haifa school graduate, and head of the communist party-affiliated Hadash, which led the Joint List. “When we speak about the West we talk mainly about colonialism, but there is a small enlightened aspect, like the Terra Santa school established 300 years ago” in Nazareth and Acre.
Zuhair Bahlol, a journalist and former MK with the Labor party, argued the case before a special Knesset assembly called to deal with the strike.
“These schools graduate the salt of the country,” said the Muslim graduate of Terra Santa’s Acre campus, “[and] export to the marketplace high-ranking people in their contribution to Israeli society.”
Similarly, Yousef Jabareen, a Muslim MK with the Hadash party, advocated for Christian schools before the Knesset education committee in September 2015.
“I will emphasize that we Arab Knesset members … most of us are graduates of these schools,” said the Nazareth-based St. Joseph Catholic school graduate. “Maybe this fact alone says something about the quality of these schools, and [their training in] political, social, cultural, and academic leadership.”
Jabareen is a law professor at Haifa University. And he is not alone among alumni of Christian schools; the excellence of these schools has helped the Arab Christian community in Israel achieve the highest percentage of university students, according to a 2021 report by the Israel Central Bureau of Statistics.
And of the politicians, Christian school alumni are known to be hard working.
Ousama Saadi, a Muslim lawyer and graduate of the Christ Church-affiliated Galilee School in Eilabun, was named the most active MK in parliament by Shakuf, an Israeli organization that monitors the work of MKs. Ranked No. 6 is Aida Touma, a Christian MK with the Hadash party, a graduate of St. Joseph Catholic school in Nazareth.
Other Christian school graduates in the Knesset include Sami Abu Shehadeh, head of the Balad Party, and Ghaida Zoubi from Meretz, a Jewish leftist liberal party.
Mtanes Shehadeh, a Christian political scientist at the Mada al-Carmel think tank and a former MK and chairman of the Balad party, told CT that “the culture of St. Joseph Catholic School in Nazareth had the largest role in forming my political awareness and national identity”.
And as operational director of Nazareth Baptist School, I can say that—regardless of their specific political views as Arab Palestinian citizens of Israel in the complex situation they live in—the politicians these Christian school have created are enlightened.
In general, they hold dear to universal human rights positions in a hostile parliament, seeking a political resolution that will end the occupation of the West Bank as well as proposing laws to remedy inequalities between Arab and Jewish citizens of Israel. Unfortunately, their success has been minimal.
Yet today, Christian schools are once again threatened by developments with the state.
A reform of the Israeli primary school system in 2008 called “New Horizon” provided substantially more teaching hours, which naturally was accompanied by a 30–40 percent wage increase. Christian schools, however, were not included in this adjustment.
Last week, the government approved another major increase in the wages of New Horizon teachers, leaving Christian schools behind again and thus widening the recruitment and retention gap even more. This will jeopardize the quality of Christian schools, as staff will tend to move to the public school system due to the much higher wages. It will also hold Christian schools back in terms of offering enough teaching hours and programs relative to public schools.
Due to the current political climate and the ongoing conflict, Israeli government officials will not appreciate the political product of these Christian schools when their alumni hold views that are not mainstream. However, officials will surely appreciate the multitude of Christian school graduates who disproportionately fill key positions in the Israeli marketplace.
During the pandemic, for example, great appreciation was given to the doctors in Israeli hospitals who were on the frontlines of the struggle against COVID-19. The percentage of Christian doctors is more than double their percentage in the general population. A similar trend occurs in the technology industry, as high numbers of graduates of Christian schools are contributing to the vibrant Israeli tech scene.
My hope and prayer is that the Israeli government would appreciate our Christian schools’ contribution to society and work with them to avoid undermining their unique heritage.
And in light of the high academic standards and the values of openness, acceptance, and diversity that the graduates of Christian schools received, their involvement in the Israeli and international marketplace comes smoothly.
“My school gave us an education in values, with tolerance for all regardless of religion or race,” said Ghaida Zoubi, a Muslim MK with Meretz who graduated from St. Joseph Catholic School in Nazareth. “Its mission was to give back to your society, on the basis that the community is larger than the individual.”
Botrus Mansour is operational director of Nazareth Baptist School.
Speaking Out is Christianity Today’s guest opinion column and (unlike an editorial) does not necessarily represent the opinion of the publication.