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HA'ARETZ Thursday, July 12, 2001

Know thy neighbor - but don't hire him

The statistics are shocking: Less than one percent of the lecturers at Israeli universities are Arab, though the Arab sector is 20 percent of the country's population. Academics' explanations for this phenomenon? Brain drain, racism, bureaucracy - and better offers abroad

By Vered Levy-Barzilai

On February 4 of this year, a meeting took place in the office of Prof. Dan Laor, dean of the Tel Aviv University Faculty of Humanities. Across from the dean sat the "secret septet" - a group of left-leaning professors whose motto is "The Campus Will Not Be Silent," and for years have been staking out positions on many important issues.

The seven came to convince Laor that urgent action must be taken to address the problem of the minuscule number of Arab lecturers at the university. They had been shocked by the most recent data, which hasn't changed significantly in years: Out of 1,500 lecturers in the entire university, only 10 are Arabs. Of 300 lecturers in the humanities, only five are Arabs.

Prof. Zvi Razi, one of the seven and a lecturer in the history department, described the university as Jewish and "northern" (referring to upscale North Tel Aviv). He charged that it is antagonistic toward the Arabs in its midst and that it alienates them.

"Let's call a spade a spade. Even if the university continues to deny it, there are racist attitudes here that keep [Arabs] from being integrated into the faculty. After the Nazis came to power in Germany, there were more Jewish lecturers than the amount of Arab lecturers we have," Razi said, adding that he had personally checked out the figures.

The rest of the group nodded in assent. Present were Prof. Israel Gershoni and Haggai Erlich of the Middle Eastern and African Studies department; Prof. Shlomo Zand of the history department; Dr. Anat Biletzky and Dr. Anat Matar of the philosophy department; and Prof... Tova Rosen of the Hebrew literature department.

Prof. Razi went on to propose two solutions: "The university should establish a special search committee aimed at recruiting Arab PhDs. There are a lot of good ones who have fled abroad. We must find them and bring them here. And secondly, when good candidates apply, we should let them in - open doors and give them preference."

Laor listened and jotted something down in his notebook. Haggai Erlich asked: "How can it be that in 2001, the Middle Eastern Studies department is still dominated by the attitude that [this specialty] is an offshoot of Israeli intelligence? How can it be that there is not a single Arab historian in the Middle Eastern Studies department? Instead of 'Know thy neighbor,' what they're studying here is 'Know thine enemy.' And the university isn't doing a thing to bring in Arab lecturers."

"Imagine if all the lecturers in the Women's Studies department were male," offered Anat Matar by way of analogy. "Or a Jewish Studies department abroad that didn't have a single Jewish lecturer. What would we say about such a campus?"

Laor replied that, at the beginning of the year, the Council on Higher Education had set up a committee to examine the issue of higher education among the Arab population - and then he wrote something else in his notebook.

Shlomo Zand said that the university could no longer adhere to the prejudiced view that Arab lecturers were not up to the level of their Jewish counterparts, and asked Laor to work toward affirmative action.

"Affirmative action?" Laor said. "I can't make that decision myself."

And when pressed by Anat Biletzky, who is also the chairperson of B'Tselem - the Israeli Information Center for Human Rights in the Occupied Territories, Laor responded: "I'm not going to play games with you. This is not my top priority. I come from the field of Jewish literature; my main interest is to promote Jewish Studies at Tel Aviv University."

Five months have gone by since that first meeting. Last Sunday, the same forum met once again. There are slight differences in the reports of what transpired, but the bottom line remains the same: To date, nothing substantial has been done about the situation. Nothing has changed. Laor is still studying the problem.

'Embarrassing' statistics

The way Shlomo Zand sees it, working to increase the number of Arab lecturers at the university is basically akin to fighting terror: "If we don't attempt to reduce the level of alienation and discrimination, we'll end up creating a kind of Kosovo in the Galilee," he says. Like his friends, he believes that the statistics at the universities in Israel, and at Tel Aviv University in particular, should concern and embarrass every Israeli citizen, Jew and Arab alike.

These are the facts: There are currently 26,000 students enrolled at Tel Aviv University; just 676 are Arab; only 10 lecturers in the entire university are Arab. Arabs make up 20 percent of the population of the country - yet their representation at Tel Aviv University is below one percent.

At Bar-Ilan University, 200 of the 15,500 students are Arab and just three of the 1,300 lecturers are Arab.

At Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, 715 of the 15,500 students are Arab. There are 10 Arab lecturers.

At the University of Haifa, 2,300 of the 13,100 students are Arab. The exact number of Arab lecturers on the faculty is not known, though it still appears small; most estimates put the number at about 15.

Hebrew University in Jerusalem refused to provide such data, the response being: "The institution does not ask any student or lecturer to identify himself in terms of his religion or nationality so there is no such record." But faculty members in Jerusalem estimate the number of Arab lecturers at less than 10.

A study done three years ago for the Council on Higher Education found that, out of a total of 4,500 permanent faculty members at Israeli universities, 35 were Arab.

The real breakthrough that has occurred in this realm was the establishment of the MAOF Fund (the Hebrew acronym for "Scholarships for Outstanding Arab Scientists") to encourage the employment of Arab faculty at the universities. The fund was established in 1995 by the Council on Higher Education, and it provides five, three-year stipends for hiring new lecturers from among those who have just received their doctorates. Today, the most accurate estimates in regard to Arab scholars, within the framework of MAOF, puts the number of Arab lecturers at 45 - but this is still less than one percent of the current total of 5,000 lecturers.

Prof. Nehemia Lev-Zion, the chairman of the Council on Higher Education: "The problem is that there aren't enough good Arab candidates."

Some academics argue that the doors are closed to good Arab candidates so they end up going abroad.

Prof. Lev-Zion: "That's not true. It's a fact that this year, we weren't able to use all the stipends we had at hand. The call goes out - and no one applies."

Why don't you form a search committee to locate the best Arab lecturers who have gone abroad and bring them back to Israel?

"Forget it. I'm not running after them. I'm not going to go looking for them. I don't run after Jews either. You make it sound like the Jewish lecturers get everything served to them on a silver platter here. It's not easy for them either. There are also frustrated Jewish candidates who were rejected. Do you see me running after them?"

Less than one percent of the lecturers in Israeli academic institutions are Arab.

"We've reached out to them. We founded the MAOF Fund for the Arabs. MAOF is their big opportunity. They should take advantage of it and not make such a big deal out of their situation. Also, I'm still waiting for the findings of the survey being done by Prof. Majd al-Hajj who chairs the committee for surveying higher education among the Arab population. Then we'll see how to implement the committee's recommendations."

Achieving prominence - abroad

Dr. Mahmud Yazbek, a senior lecturer in Haifa University's Middle Eastern Studies department, angrily rejects these arguments. He says that, every year, there are at least 30 Arabs who have completed a doctorate, whether in Israel or abroad: "With a little effort, we could get to them. It's not true that there aren't enough good candidates. There are some excellent candidates. They just don't want to find them."

He adds that the situation is somewhat better at Haifa University, where there are more than 20 Arabs on the faculty. But it's still a very small number, percentage-wise. The universities still haven't grasped the need to hire Arab lecturers, which would enable Arab students to receive more personal guidance and to enjoy the company of Arab intellectuals on their campus.

Yazbek: "Why should people be amazed that Arab PhDs run off to America? It's natural for them to do so. The facts show that after failing in their attempts to be accepted in Israel, they attain very prominent positions abroad."

Dr. Fadya Nasser, who lectures in education at Tel Aviv University, came to her position by way of a MAOF scholarship. Ostensibly, Nasser is cogent proof of what Tel Aviv University rector Prof. Itamar Rabinovich and the people from the Council on Higher Education have been saying: The good ones are accepted. This is an example of affirmative action through the MAOF program. The only hitch is that Nasser herself does not agree with a word of it.

"What does that mean - there aren't enough good candidates? Who says that? There are many excellent Arab graduates who finished their studies abroad. It's just the opposite. There is very stiff competition. And many who come to Israel and compete, don't manage to get in," she says.

"But it starts long before, with the bachelor's and master's degrees. When I was studying, I didn't have an Israeli stipend, because there aren't any for Arab students. I studied with American scholarships. I went to the United States and did my master's and doctorate at the University of Georgia. If I'd had to do my master's degree here, I couldn't have made it. It wasn't economically possible. When I came back after completing my doctorate, I was hired with a MAOF stipend which pays for three years of my work at the university. Otherwise, I have no way of knowing what would have happened with me.

"Arab academics are in a terrible crisis. It's well- known that a high percentage of them are compelled to teach in high schools. Many settle in the U.S., Canada, England or Germany. It's so absurd. Whoever claims that the system doesn't discriminate between Jews and Arabs isn't telling the truth. It starts in preschool and doesn't end when you're doing a bachelor's or a master's degree. The discrimination lasts the entire way."

Racism and brain drain

Prof. Razi of the Tel Aviv University "secret septet" says that, at his institution, Arab candidates fall short time and time again. The final blow is dealt by the members of the appointment committees. "They always have their reasons," complains Razi. "But the real reason has always been the same - racism. What - I'm supposed to believe that all the Arabs are stupid?"

The group says Prof. Lev-Zion's assertion about insufficient good candidates is totally baseless. There are some terrific Arab candidates, they say. But after experiencing a number of rejections, the candidates simply give up. The seven bemoan the great missed opportunities on the part of Israeli academia, in general, and their own institution, in particular.

Why did no rector or university president deem it correct to offer Anton Shammas a chair in literature, like that held by Amos Oz at Ben-Gurion University and A. B. Yehoshua at Haifa University, they ask. Why did Shammas have to end up settling in Michigan instead of Tel Aviv? Why does a man like Dr. Azmi Bishara have to enter politics and the Knesset instead of being a pillar of the political sciences in academia, his natural milieu?

Another name mentioned in this context is Prof. Wahel Haleq from Nazareth, an expert in the history of law in the Arab and Muslim world. Instead of receiving the honor due him in Haifa or Tel Aviv, he found it at McGill University in Montreal.

Then there's Prof. Shukri Abed who specializes in Middle East history and has established a fine international reputation. He has called the University of Maryland home for the past 15 years. In the distant past, Shukri Abed and Prof. Mustafa Kabha, a lecturer in the history of the modern Palestinian national movement, both sought to be hired at Tel Aviv's Moshe Dayan Center for Middle Eastern and African Studies [which was established in 1983 and comprised the Shiloah Center and other units]. But they were unable to break into this exclusive club, which conducts research on the Middle East with a purely Israeli-Jewish staff.

Prof. Israel Gershoni adds that the Shiloah Center, which was founded over 35 years ago, had never employed an Arab scholar in a permanent position. The same is true of the Jaffee Center for Strategic Studies, the Curiel Institute for International Studies and other institutes.

Gershoni: "By rights, public and academic institutions should include Arabs according to their proportion in the population - about 20 percent. This isn't happening. You have to put aside all the stories and excuses and ask: Why aren't there Arab lecturers here? My answer is that it's because the dominant, prevailing discourse in the creation of historic knowledge and knowledge of the Middle East is the discourse of 'Know thine enemy.'

"At Tel Aviv University, they're busy creating a deterrent discourse and not an academic discourse. It began in 1967 and applies today as well. That's the real reason."

Several of the humanities professors say they've heard Arab students referring (in jest?) to the Gilman Building, where many humanities courses are held, as "the Shin Bet security force dungeons." Just as used to be the case with the Jews, the fields most often chosen by the Arab students today are medicine (including nursing), law and engineering. But there isn't a single Arab lecturer in these departments.

Dr. Anat Biletzky: "Tel Aviv University simply does not see this as a problem at all. The outgoing rector - Prof. Nili Cohen - did not define it as a problem. The president, Itamar Rabinovich, does not define it as a problem. There's a status quo and it's being preserved. For instance, they didn't think of forming a real team to look into and deal with this issue. If there's no problem, what's the committee going to do?"

Struggles to 'bend' the system

Razi, Gershoni and Erlich have been trying for two years to arrange for Prof. Adel Mana of Jerusalem's Van Leer Institute, to be hired as a member of the Tel Aviv University faculty. Even though the consensus is that Mana is superbly qualified, their efforts have been continually frustrated. Every time the matter comes up, there's another bureaucratic excuse of some sort.

There is also one extraordinary example of a professor who spearheaded a struggle and managed to "bend" the system to his will: Prof. Sasson Somekh of the department of Arabic language and literature refused to accept the prevailing dictates regarding the hiring of Arab lecturers. He did not capitulate before Tel Aviv University's president and the rector and, over the course of several years, was instrumental in bringing three of them - Dr. Jubran Suleiman, Dr. Mahmud Ghanaim and Dr. Nasser Basel - onto the university faculty.

Somekh says this was a natural process for the department: They were good in their field and no affirmative action was necessary. He is uncomfortable with the suggestion that it was his doing. But colleagues in the humanities are more than ready to recount how he fought, notifying the university administration that, "Without them, I don't continue teaching." And how, despite the fact that the scholars deserved to be hired on the strength of their academic achievements, in the end, they were hired thanks to Somekh's struggle on their behalf.

The findings of Prof. Majd al-Hajj's study have already been submitted to Prof. Lev-Zion of the Council on Higher Education. These findings include discrimination against Arab students and lecturers in several areas: Jewish students are given extra credit for studying Jewish religious subjects (Tanakh, Talmud and the Oral Law) - whereas there is no such bonus for Arab students of Islamic studies. And academic scholarships are in the majority of cases contingent upon doing army service (this still applies to the majority of academic scholarships), or upon residence in an area defined as "a national priority region."

It is also much more difficult for Arabs to gain admission to universities because of the academic level of the high schools they attend. The number of Arabs who have attained a matriculation certificate with high marks is much lower than the number of Jews who have done so. The psychometric exam for university admission is designed according to a Western mindset, and is anchored in the cultural world of the Jewish student. Lacking adaptations to the cultural and cognitive world of the Arab student, this examination constitutes a form of discrimination. Furthermore, the programs that are offered to help students prepare for the exam are aimed at those who will take the Hebrew version, and are thus irrelevant for Arabs seeking to go to university, who actually are in greater need of this kind of help.

In the Arab school system, English is taught as a third language (after Arabic and Hebrew), rather than as the second one. But college entrance exams place a great emphasis on knowledge of English, and are thus particularly difficult for the Arab students.

Prof. Razi doesn't mince words: "The university will give you its rational explanations. They always find excuses to hide behind. But we're judging by the result and the result - and I'd like you to quote my exact words - is numerus clausus."

Discrimination is rife

Ruba Hashibun, an undergraduate studying education and literature, is the chair of the Arab Students Committee at Tel Aviv University. She doesn't have to read al-Hajj's study to know what is going on: "For Jewish students, college is a pleasant experience. For many Arab students, it's a nightmare. There's no support. When you spend a whole day going about the campus and barely meet anyone, you feel a great sense of loneliness. Unless you have a very strong personality, you can hardly cope. I think each Arab student puts in three times the effort a Jewish student does to express himself or herself before the professors and the other students."

Hashibun claims that Arab students encounter discrimination everywhere they turn, and explains, "Everything is in Hebrew. We don't have an intellectual group to belong to. There are hardly any Arab professors one could identify with to feel a little more at home. The scholarships are for the Jews. And the good advisors are for the Jews. Would a senior professor be an Arab student's advisor? That's still a distant dream."

She says that hundreds of students who could have come to the Tel Aviv campus do not do so for one reason - the minimum admission age. And Hashibun is suspicious of the university's motives in setting this limit. "Last year, 30 Arab students studied social work. The minimum age for admission was 20. This year, they suddenly announced that it was 21. No Arab student will wait until they reach that age. Why would they do this? It's clearly a step taken against us."

One of the most troubling conclusions of Hajj's study is that "the more educated an Arab becomes, the less opportunities for employment he will find in the Jewish sector." And that includes many fields outside academia. In addition to the minuscule number of Arab faculty, Hajj notes that "There are hardly any Arabs among the university's administrative staff. There is not one Arabic-speaker among the employees who provide service to the students."

"It's a fact," he reiterates, "that [Arab lecturers] go abroad to pursue their studies and career. They don't have any faith that they'll be able to find a place here. The MAOF stipend is a very nice thing. But the numbers [of recipients] are still small and there isn't sufficient awareness of its existence. Unfortunately, there are some universities that simply aren't too thrilled to take Arabs onto the faculty.

"Moreover, there is no support mechanism for young scholars working on their master's degrees. There are no scholarships for outstanding students. There is no mechanism for getting them to work in tandem with a senior professor, to encourage them to publish or to prepare them for the academic life."

Would you say that the universities in Israel are racist?

Hajj: "The universities are an integral part of Israeli society and Israeli society is racist. Jewish elitism is dominant and the academic intellectual discourse is filtered through Jew ish eyes. This is no secret. It is obvious and cries out to be remedied. The Arab student comes to a place that is 100 percent Jewish. The signs, symbols, discussion, department names - everything is in Hebrew.

"Nationally, there are more than 10,000 administrative positions in the universities. You can count the number of Arabs on one hand. Once, we use to joke about it in Haifa because there was a period when, in the entire university, the only Arab employee was a woman who was a secretary in my department. Was that a coincidence?"

Maybe the time has come for an Arab university to be established in Israel.

"I'm in favor of every national and cultural group having institutional representation. But I worry about the potential for seclusion. I'm in favor of founding such a college, but only if everything is done to ensure that it will be the jewel in the crown, a source of pride. All subjects should be taught there and [the institution] should meet all the academic criteria. Only if the best lecturers and resources should be directed there. By the way, a concrete proposal for something along those lines has already been submitted to the Council on Higher Education. And it was approved. So I can tell you right now that the first Arab college will soon be established in Israel."

Hajj's recommends that special support mechanisms, similar to those used at the time to assist new immigrants from Russia, be put in place to help integrate Arab students into campus life. Also, he would like to see the MAOF scholarships be expanded, and other stipends for Arab lecturers made available. He would like to see more programs instituted to attract and incorporate Arab scientists in universities as well as support mechanisms to encourage outstanding Arab students to pursue advanced degrees.

'We want Arab faculty'

Tel Aviv University president Prof. Itamar Rabinovich responds: "You don't have to be a 'leftist' to want to see proper representation of Arab faculty. Of course, we want that. There is no 'petrified' thinking in the university administration on this issue. Just the opposite. Not only is there no discrimination against Arabs, there is affirmative action: The MAOF stipend that was born in this university when I served as rector.

"Our policy is to work to increase the number of Arab students. And there are scholarships that are intended to encourage the admission of students from weaker socioeconomic backgrounds - including from Arab society - to the competitive departments. Affirmative action is also being implemented in the dormitories. The percentage of Arab students who receive housing is several times higher than their percentage in the student body.

"As for the small number of lecturers - here, we do not favor affirmative action, because you can't compromise on the level of the faculty. You can't make allowances as far as the academic level. It's the same for the Jews as it is for the Arabs - no one gets a free pass. It's all done according to standard procedure and the best candidates are accepted.

"As for the lack of an Arab lecturer in the Middle East Studies department - I don't understand this argument at all. The Middle East department is no different than any other. To the best of my knowledge, there is no physiological reason why an Arab lecturer must be found there in particular. Or maybe the distinguished professors know of such a reason? It's really a shame but, to this day, no Arab candidate with suitable talents has applied. There's no problem with an Arab scholar being accepted into any department, including the Dayan Center or the Jaffee Center."

Adds Rabinovich: "The claims of the professors from the left are ludicrous and infuriating. If they have so much to say, let them come to the dean's office and the senate and speak there. It's regrettable that they choose to do this in the pages of the newspaper."

The outgoing rector, Prof. Nili Cohen, declined to be interviewed.

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