Challenges of Israeli Academia as a Shared Space | Van Leer ...

Challenges of Israeli Academia as a Shared Space | Van Leer Jerusalem Institute & Abraham Initiatives Seminar

November 29, 2018

On October 22, 2018, academics and civil society leaders gathered at a seminar organized by the Van Leer Jerusalem Institute and the Abraham Initiatives to discuss the challenges and opportunities prompted by the radical increase in the number of Arab students in Israeli academia, a result of the Council for Higher Education's plans to enhance Arab citizens' access to higher education. The Israeli government has allocated substantial funds toward this goal since 2011.

Over the past seven years, the number of Arab students in Israel's higher education institutions has increased by 80%, and they currently comprise 15% of the overall student body versus 9.3% in 2010, and 16.1% of first-degree students. The increase has made Israel's campuses more significant than ever as a site for potential Arab-Jewish contact and cooperation.

Despite these strides, speakers at the Van Leer seminar said that quality of integration and shared life on campus has yet to match improvements in the quantity of Arab students. Arab and Jewish university administrators, faculty, scholars, and students shared ways in which Arabs on campus still feel alienated from or not accommodated by their academic institutions, and outlined strategies to help cultivate Israeli academia as a shared space. This goal aligns with the expanded priorities of the second six-year plan launched by the Council for Higher Education in 2016, which include developing more multicultural campuses.

With higher education the most important factor in Arab citizens’ economic advancement, the Council for Higher Education recognizes that continuing to increase the number of Arab students requires their fuller integration into colleges and universities. Creating more inclusive and welcoming campuses that help Arab students to succeed will also lower their dropout rates and enable them to complete their degrees in less time; currently, 64 percent of Arab students take longer to graduate from first degree studies than the Jewish majority.

At the Van Leer seminar, findings were presented from a recent survey, "Sense of Belonging at Academic Institutions among Arab Students," conducted among 244 Arab students enrolled in 2017-2018. It was a joint project of the Abraham Initiatives, the Center for the Study of Multiculturalism and Diversity, and the National Union of Israeli students.

See the full survey results here (Infographic). A sample of survey findings is below:

Avenues for Deepening Integration

The seminar focused on the main areas that experts believe are key to making academia a truly shared space. Speakers addressed how to leverage integration achievements thus far to achieve a deeper sense of partnership and equality between Jewish and Arab students and faculty on Israel's campuses.

These included:

  • Enhancing and supporting political discourse and freedom of expression among Arab students and between Arabs and Jews on campus.
  • Branding of academic institutions including representation of Arab students and society in institutions' materials and marketing strategies.
  • Increasing the number of Arab administrative faculty.
  • Curricular adaptions to represent and include Arab society and scholars.

The main panel and much of the discussion was dedicated to political discourse and freedom of expression in higher education institutions. While there is consensus that campuses can potentially foster valuable social and political engagement between Arabs and Jews, academics shared that current restrictions on the political activism and self-expression of Arab students in some institutions alienates them and inhibits their discourse with Jewish counterparts.

Examples included prevention or restriction of events such as Nakba Day or political protests, censorship surrounding Arab political art, tension around the display of Arabic and Arab symbols and imagery (including in the offices of Arab faculty members), and academic skepticism regarding research findings on Arab society that challenge dominant narratives. Recommendations for resolving such issues included increasing the involvement of Arab faculty in supporting students, establishing forums at colleges and universities dedicated to the issue, changing policies about protests and political dialogue on campus, and more support from civil society.  

Larger and growing Arab student bodies have also prompted academic institutions to address this increase in their branding, marketing, and recruitment strategies, as well as outwardly acknowledging it on campus. Speakers said that while in recent years some institutions have treated this integration as a marketing advantage and opportunity, others still view it as a barrier or challenge, worried that overtly representing the increased presence of Arabs on campus might deter other applicants. Speakers said that while higher education institutions have made progress in their representation of Arab society externally and within the schools, they could do more to attain universal inclusivity in this area.

Representatives of two academic institutions with significant numbers of Arab students, Oranim College President Yaara Bar-On and Dr. Youssef Masharawi of Tel Aviv University, shared initiatives at their institutions toward more inclusive branding and marketing. Oranim College includes images of Arab students in its marketing materials, displays artwork by Arab students on campus including Muslim symbols, and publicly objected to the Nation-State Law. Tel Aviv University has made extensive recruitment efforts within Arab society including busing 4,000 Arab high school students to an open day on campus, providing keyboards in Arabic, and creating an inclusive holiday calendar.   

Panels were also dedicated to the issues of staff and curricular content. The lack of Arab academic staff, from admissions professionals to librarians, is reportedly among the primary barriers to multiculturalism and sense of belonging among Arab students on campus. With Arabs comprising only 2 percent of administrative faculty nationwide, some institutions, including the Technion and Tel Aviv University, have begun turning to external bodies such as Collective Impact in order to help integrate more Arab staff into these positions.

Speakers discussed creating multicultural curricula, including incorporating more studies by Arab scholars into class syllabi, establishing specialized courses on Arab society and shared society, offering Arabic classes, and more. Barriers include the challenge of developing institution-wide multicultural curricula and finding studies by minorities, and speakers discussed the need to address student and faculty cultural sensitivities. Beit Berl College faculty members discussed system-wide curricular adaptations at the institution through its Center for Shared Society and courses like the Time Tunnel Program, a contemporary history program that teaches Arab and Jewish students about gathering contemporary oral histories and sharing the stories of different communities. Dr. Raghada Elnablisy of the Ruppin Academic Center described a course in the department of social work dedicated to mitigating violence within Arab society through interventions tailored to Arab communities. 

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