‘We Count For Nothing’

On 1 September, the beginning of the school year in Israel, the director-general of the Ministry of Education said that the opening of the school year had been “smooth”. According to the website of the ministry, the school year had been started “properly”. These two phrases basically form the essence of what this article is about.

Throughout the years, school strikes (or threats to strike) were often a recurring feature around September 1st, with all media covering the strikes and strikers, with last-minute deals made and solutions found. Hardly anybody was really bothered, though, by the fact that for almost a month, 33,000 children, students at 47 Christian schools around the country, did not see the inside of their classrooms. Their schools were on strike, in protest against cuts on government subsidies.

No Political Clout

These 47 are elementary and junior high schools, managed by various churches. About three quarters of the schools belong to the Catholic Church, the others are run by Christian-Orthodox or Anglican denominations. The conflict between these ʻspecialʼ schools and the Ministry started in 2009, when instead of Yuli Tamir (Labor), Gideon Sa’ar (Likud) became Minister of Education. He, and especially his successor, Shai Peron (Yesh Atid, a strongly secular party), made anxious efforts to strengthen the position of public, state-run schools (Arab/Druze, Jewish secular, and Jewish religious, i.e., Orthodox), at the expense of the semi-private schools (Christian and ultra-Orthodox). Schools belonging to the latter category receive only 75% of their budgets from the state.  This policy led, on balance, to severe cuts to state subsidies for these schools.

The Christian schools were able to partly set off the deficits that resulted from these cuts, by raising the parental contributions, but Minister Peron imposed strict limits to that. When, earlier this year, both ultra-Orthodox parties in the Knesset became members of the government again, after having been “out in the desert” for almost two years, they easily managed to undo the cuts on the subsidies for their schools, or to obtain alternative government funds. The small public that relies on the Christian schools, on the other hand, does not have any direct representatives or a strong lobby in the Knesset, which makes them politically weak and insignificant, even though some (mainly Arab and left wing) parliamentarians gave the striking schools their moral support. As several of those whom I talked to for this article told me, and I paraphrase, in Israel you have to shout, to threaten, or to have political and other connections in order to be heard and to be able to protect your interests. Those same people said, though, that this should not be a political struggle at all.

Public Indifference

Illustrative for the lack of public attention for this struggle for school funding is that I myself, who quite piously follows the news, only got an idea of the extent and of some of the causes of the problem when three weeks into the strike my own school, together with all high schools in Israel, finally took part in a two-hour solidarity strike. Until then the subject had been largely ignored, even by the teachers’ unions. On the day of that strike a delegation of students, teachers and parents of the Sisters of Nazareth School visited the Leo Baeck Education Center, to explain to our teachers and students what the strike was about. Martha Shiti, a high school student who acted as spokesperson for the delegation, said that the indifference towards discrimination hurts even more than the discrimination itself. Less than one week after that two-hour strike a compromise was reached, which effectively ended the strike.

Hoping for a Structural Solution

The Ministry, led by Minister Naftali Bennett (The Jewish Home), has emphatically denied that there is any discrimination involved here. Spokespersons for the Ministry claim, among other things, that the schools lack financial transparency. For that matter, Assaad Talhami, a journalist and an active and concerned parent of a high school student, told me that that lack of transparency is also something that parents complain about. He said that he was not very optimistic about a satisfying outcome of the strike, but that it probably would lead to more participation and involvement of parents in the way the schools are run. Another claim by Ministry officials, that the schools are elitist, is steadfastly denied by all teachers and parents that I spoke to. Parents contribute 75-100 euro a month. If a student’s parents cannot afford that, the student usually is entitled to a partial or full scholarship.

These schools play a vital role in the life of Christians in Israel. The amount of money mentioned in the reports on the agreement between the schools and the Ministry covers only a fraction of the deficits and cutbacks of the last two years, and it remains to be seen whether the commission that is supposed to sort out the issue will come up with a structural, long-term solution. Such a solution was the main demand of the parents. They want the legal and financial position of their children’s schools to be regulated once and for all, so that the education of their children is guaranteed and does not remain dependent on the favors of officials and politicians.

The Armaly family. From left to right: Nabil, Adan, Leen, Nardin and Camilia. (Yonathan Bar-On)

The Right to Choose a School

With all due respect for numbers, politics, and bureaucracy, the main issue here was and still is the future and feelings of many thousands of Israelis. To get an impression of those feelings I visited the town of Shefa Amr (Shfar’am in Hebrew), a 15 minutes’ drive from my own home, a few days before the end of the strike. About a quarter of the town’s 40,000 residents are Christians. I had asked several of my contact persons for names of people who might be able and willing to tell their side of the story.

This is how I met not only Assaad Talhami, but also Nabil Armaly, magazine editor and CEO of a translation and localization company. Nabil and his wife Nardin, manager at a telecommunications company, have three daughters: Camilia (11 months), Adan (who should have started first grade on 1 September), and Leen, who now is in 3rd grade. Their daughters are the fourth generation in Nabil’s family who attend the Episcopal Catholic School, right around the corner of their home. Just like Mr. Talhami, the Armaly family chose this school not only because they are Christian (many of the students at these schools are Muslim), and because they find it important to continue their family tradition and to preserve their identity, but also and especially because many Arab public schools are structurally underfinanced and do not offer the same level of education.

87% of Israeli Arabs who work in the high tech industry, a pillar of the country’s economy, are graduates of one of the 47 schools that were on strike.  Nabil and Nardin believe that, as hard working, tax paying Israeli citizens, they deserve the right and freedom to choose a school for their children, and that their choice is not less legitimate (and therefore does not deserve less state support) than the one made by Jewish parents who send their children to ultra-Orthodox schools. What Nardin told me, just before I left their home, was very revealing, and should worry the Ministry of Education, the Israeli government, and basically all of us. She said that never before had she felt so discriminated against as she had felt throughout last month, not even when she was confronted with unvarnished racism while looking for a job or a place to live in Tel Aviv.

“It is a hard feeling, and humiliating, to be ignored or dealt with in an arrogant manner. We count for nothing, nobody notices us. Until now we have kept silent when faced with discrimination, even when the Church of the Multiplication in Tabgha was set on fire last June. Now that the very future of our children is at stake, we cannot keep quiet anymore.”

This is a translation, by the author, of the Dutch original, which appeared in the daily Friesch Dagblad.

About the Author
Yonathan Bar-On (Bert de Bruin) is a historian and an EAL teacher. He teaches English at the Leo Baeck Education Center in Haifa, and has written extensively for Dutch newspapers, and occasionally for American and Israeli newspapers and online media. Yonathan writes a weekly column for the Dutch daily Friesch Dagblad. In 1995 he immigrated to Israel from the Netherlands.