Israel’s Catholic Schools

RENEH, Israel (CNS) — The Latin Patriarchate School in Reneh, in Galilee, is an exception to the rule, said Father Elias Odeh, its director.

The school is so crowded it must educate its younger and older students in separate shifts, he said.

The space crunch at the school is not bound to last long. There is one obstacle yet to overcome.

“We have the plans, we have the permission,” Father Odeh said. “All we need is the money.”

Usually, what’s lacking for Palestinians living in Israel is not plans and not money, but permission.

Palestinian Catholics see the lack of permission as part of a systematic Israeli campaign to keep Palestinians living in Israel from improving their lives.

At Terra Sancta School, run by the Franciscans in Jerusalem’s Old City, school officials asked the Jerusalem municipal authorities to approve the addition of new floors above the current four-story structure to alleviate overcrowding and to allow for more students to be admitted. The school has the plans and the money; officials just needed permission.

The answer came back no, said Franciscan Father Simon Herro, who attended the school when he was a student.

“They said they could not guarantee our security if we built above the wall” of the Old City, he said.

Why not just build anyway? Because Jerusalem authorities have the power to demolish any building that contains any features or improvements not approved by the government, Father Herro said. And once a building is gone, especially in the Old City, it is likely to be gone forever.

At Mar Elias College, a Catholic high school in Ibillin, popularity among students and parents is causing growing pains. The school would like to extend its campus to some long-vacant land adjacent to the Mar Elias property. The school has the plans. It also has some money. All it needs, too, is permission.

Israeli authorities said no in this instance as well, said Elias Abu Ghanemeh, Mar Elias principal. The reason, he added, is more convoluted. After the Israeli-Palestine war of 1948, Israel confiscated properties — and even entire villages — that had been owned by Palestinians who had fled the war’s violence. Ghanemeh said the government told him it retains custody of those lands in case Palestinian refugees or their descendants were to exercise their “right of return” — which Israel ordinarily does not recognize.

Ghanemeh is not the first person to refer to the Palestinians as “the Jews of the Jews” — an ethnic group marginalized and treated with disdain in the same manner in which Jews have been treated throughout much of their history.

But Ghanemeh, speaking to U.S. reporters, offered a second analogy to describe the Israeli-Palestinian tension: “We are the Indians.”

“This was our land,” he explained, just as the United States had been the sole province of American Indians. “But you came and you pushed them back and there was no place for them to go. Look where they are today,” he said, referring to the reservations on which most Indians live.

The same situation, according to Ghanemeh, is befalling the Palestinians.

“We are being squeezed,” he said.

Palestine was part of a British protectorate until the 1947 partition that created the state of Israel, when it lost 52 percent of its territory. The 1948 and 1967 wars resulted in the loss of another 24 percent of what had been historic Palestine. Further losses of land have come as Israelis “settled” in more than 120 areas and from the construction of the “separation wall” — mostly on Palestinian land — and from a series of 170 security checkpoints. As a result, the Palestinian territories now total only about 12 percent of the land Palestine occupied at the close of World War II.

Despite the ongoing indignities, important work is being done in the schools.

Terra Sancta — just one of several schools to claim the name, which is Latin for “Holy Land” — claims scholars and sheriffs among its alumni.

The Latin Patriarchate School has a new computer lab that would be the envy of any U.S. high school: 20 new computers and monitors.

Mar Elias College students have taken part in joint programs with Jewish Israeli students — first on their common turf, and then in Italy.

Sawson Chacour, a Mar Elias student and a great-niece of Melkite Archbishop Elias Chacour of Haifa, said the initial meeting with the Jewish students did not go well.

“We felt like they were acting superior,” she said.

At one point, Chacour added, “Our parents were like, ‘Are you sure you want to go to Italy?’”

But the students resolved enough of their difficulties to warrant spending part of the summer in Italy.

“It was a valuable program,” Chacour said. “But could we send every Israeli and every Palestinian to Italy?”

Pattison visited the Middle East in September as part of a study tour sponsored by the Catholic Near East Welfare Association and funded in part by the Catholic Communication Campaign.

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