Scotland

The Christian school in Israel described as 'an oasis'

  • 18 December 2015
  • From the section Scotland
Media captionA multi-faith school established by the Church of Scotland is teaching tolerance in the Israeli city of Jaffa

Amongst the conflict that defines the Middle East lies something of a surprise.

It is described as "an oasis" in the midst of religious division. Tabeetha is the last remaining Church of Scotland school and, intriguingly, it's in Israel.

The gates of Tabeetha are easy to miss. They take you off a busy street where wires stick out of walls.

At first, the playground sounds like any playground: the same games, just as noisy but the children are speaking Hebrew, Arabic, English and other languages.

From the hall, which doubles as a bomb shelter and chamber which can be sealed in the event of chemical and biological warfare, I hear a Scottish Accent. The vice principal is from Aberdeen.

Image caption Jane Walker-Arnott, who was from Glasgow, started Tabeetha in 1863

It is marked out as a Christian school by the Bible inscriptions on the alcoves.

Its founder looks down sternly from the wall in the hall. Jane Walker-Arnott was a Scottish woman, from Glasgow, who started Tabeetha in 1863 - long before the state of Israel even existed.

Under the gaze of the founder, the children file in to rehearse their nativity play.

Many people associate Bethlehem with the songs they sing at Christmas - the birthplace of Jesus, according to the Bible.

At Tabeetha, they are about 40 miles from Bethlehem, acting out a Christian tradition, about a Jewish family and Joseph is played by Adham, a Muslim. That sums up the ethos of this school.

Nawras is an A-level pupil. She is Muslim. At Tabeetha, she's encouraged to talk about the unwanted politics that invade her life.

"As somebody who lives in Jaffa, it gets quite tense, but we don't have a lot of places here in Israel where people are together, but if this expands, then our potential would be impossible to imagine," she said.

"At one point I see my brother being stopped for wearing a gold necklace, because it looks suspicious, and on the other side, I hear my friend's family being victimised from a terrorist attack. What we do is learn from it and not taking one stand, one position."

Yan, who's from a Jewish family, says life goes on as normal for him. He lives in an area where people of different faiths live peacefully side by side.

He said: "In this school there is no tension between pupils in regard to religion and race."

So I expect him to be hopeful about the future but he pauses before saying: "Things are really messy right now."

He has heard too much to have the optimism of youth. "So no. I'm not optimistic".

In 12-year-old Roberto's class they were learning about the Jewish festival of Hanukkah. Roberto is Christian and eager to talk. I ask him what he thinks about the conflict around him.

"I think people are fighting for nothing; they're fighting for something useless, and I think the people should get along," he said. "I want to see people just stop have racism."

I would be unlikely to ask what religion a child is in the UK. It's unlikely it would matter. In Israel, it's entwined in their lives and ingrained in the school curriculum.

When I meet the Middle East secretary for the Church of Scotland, Kenny Roger, he is every bit the modern missionary. He wears a linen suit and drives a hybrid car.

Image caption Kenny Roger says the school recognises all religions

He says Christians can chose to go to Tabeetha rather than an Israeli State school.

"Within Israel, you are either Christian, Muslim or Jew and therefore here at Tabeetha we recognise all religions," he said.

"Within the Israeli state system, it's clear that they don't recognise necessarily the Christian and the Muslim faith, so children going there, their teaching will be solely based on the Jewish religion."

Father Abdel Masih F Fahim represents Christian Schools in Israel. As we walk through St Joseph's Church in Ramleh, he casually mentions that it is named after Joseph of Arimathea who, according to the Bible, took Jesus down from the cross.

The friar tells me that St Joseph came from this town.

Fr Abdel says funding to Christian schools from the Israeli government has been cut from 75% to 29% in recent years. He describes that as discrimination against Christians.

Image caption Fr Abdel Masih F Fahim says funding to Christian schools from the Israeli government has been cut from 75% to 29% in recent years

Fr Abdel is in talks with the Ministry of Education but says even 75% is discriminatory against 100% given to state schools.

Kenny Roger adds that if Tabeetha school was to close, some of the families at the school would leave Israel entirely.

Although discussions with the Israeli government are showing signs of hope, he says he feels Christians are being marginalised.

The Israeli Ministry of Education said: "The Tabeetha school is under the status of a 'recognised but not official' institute, and therefore it is funded like all other schools in Israel that are recognised but unofficial, meaning up to 75%.

"High-schools are funded like all other high-schools in Israel, at a rate of 100%."

'Mutual respect'

The government spokesman added: "The Tabeetha school, along with other recognised schools in Jaffa that are multi-cultural schools, share an attitude of mutual respect and equality among all students of the school.

"The district emphasises that the Tabeetha school participates in many activities run by the Ministry of Education which encourage the values of tolerance."

I leave Tabeetha school with an "earworm".

"Lie-lee-da, lie-lee-da." Too young to fully understand the politics, the five-year-olds sang a song to the tune of Jingle Bells in Arabic at home-time. Home to their life in a divided land they call the Holy Land.

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