A class apart

Thousands of Israeli Arab students, who struggle to find a place for themselves in the country’s higher education system, choose to study in the Palestinian Authority - despite the sky-high tuition fees, cultural tensions and even racism toward students from inside Israel. And if that's not enough, the Shin Bet is always listening too. Shomrim reports on the plight of Israel’s Arab students.

Thousands of Israeli Arab students, who struggle to find a place for themselves in the country’s higher education system, choose to study in the Palestinian Authority - despite the sky-high tuition fees, cultural tensions and even racism toward students from inside Israel. And if that's not enough, the Shin Bet is always listening too. Shomrim reports on the plight of Israel’s Arab students.

Thousands of Israeli Arab students, who struggle to find a place for themselves in the country’s higher education system, choose to study in the Palestinian Authority - despite the sky-high tuition fees, cultural tensions and even racism toward students from inside Israel. And if that's not enough, the Shin Bet is always listening too. Shomrim reports on the plight of Israel’s Arab students.

Shahar Smooha and Baker Zoabi

Amir (left) and Adi Ali. Photos: Shlomi Yosef

September 8, 2020

Summary

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r. Adi Ali, 25, from the village of Sha’ab in the Lower Galilee, recently returned to Israel after completing his medical studies in Odesa, Ukraine. When we spoke with him, he was still in isolation in keeping with coronavirus regulations for people entering the country - and still trying to readapt to the Israeli summer. He’ll be sitting the Health Ministry’s licensing examination in January.

A seemingly commonplace story; after all, a fair number of Arab Israeli high school graduates have been studying at universities in Eastern Europe for years. But Adi didn’t begin his degree in Odesa, on the shores of the Black Sea. About five years ago, he started studying dentistry at the Arab American University in Jenin. Two years into his studies, however, he felt stifled by life in the West Bank and left for Odesa, where he also decided to focus instead on general medicine and leave burrowing into people’s open mouths to others.

Adi says the idea of studying in Jenin took hold after friends of his mother spoke highly to her of the university, which was still relatively new at the time. A first glance, the large number of Israeli students enrolled at the university and the syllabus itself should have assured a vibrant student atmosphere on campus, but the reality Ali encountered didn’t exactly meet his expectations.

Dr. Nohad Ali and his sons Amir (left) and Adi. Photo: Shlomi Yosef

"When I asked around beforehand, people told me it’s a great place to study," he recounts. "When I started my studies, the university was already filled with a ridiculous number of Arab students from Israel, and by the time I was in my second year, 4,000 of the 10,000 students at the university were from Israel. I believe there are even more there now. But the main reason I left was that I simply couldn’t relate to life there at all."

Can you explain?

"Here in Israel, we’re used to a certain way of life. We have certain freedoms; we can go out to have fun. The school of dentistry in Jenin is excellent, and very few of its graduates don’t pass the licensing exams in Israel, but in terms of the quality of life there, there’s nothing at all to do except sit around at home.

"I lived in Zababda, a small village a minute’s walk from the university, which, itself, is a short way out of town. If you go out to the street, the only thing you’ll find is a grocery store. There used to be a café, which was always crowded and where I never felt comfortable - but that’s it. Had I lived in Jenin, I would have been bored there too. It has a few cafés."

Adi was also surprised by some of the social norms, especially in terms of interaction with the opposite sex. The increasing number of Arab students from Israel, he says, has led to a slight change in the conservative dynamic of life in the West Bank when it comes to male-female relationships, but the reality is still very different from the one he knew before. "Our guys and girls [Israeli Arabs] can go out together to a café and there’s no problem with that," he says. "But let’s say you see a girl from there and you want to say hello to her - then only from a distance. Not only that, I remember sitting in the front of a class once in my first year, quite close to the lecturer, and a girl came in late and sat down in the seat next to me. After sitting down, she suddenly asked me to move elsewhere because she doesn’t sit next to men.

Dr. Adi Ali originally started his studies in Jenin "Here in Israel, we’re used to a certain way of life. We have certain freedoms; we can go out to have fun. The school of dentistry in Jenin is excellent, and very few of its graduates don’t pass the licensing exams in Israel, but in terms of the quality of life there, there’s nothing at all to do except sit around at home.

"I said I was there before she arrived and that she could find somewhere else to sit, but the lecturer didn’t want any trouble, so he told me to go sit further back. How did it make me feel? Honestly, I was pretty angry, and surprised; but that’s just how things are there."

Culturally challenging

Adi’s older brother, Amir, is in the final year of degree. He’s also studying medicine in Ukraine, and also began his degree in the territories, at An-Najah National University in Nablus, where he studied for four and a half years before choosing to leave. "People choose to study medicine in the [Palestinian] Authority because of the obstacles in the path of Arabs who want to study medicine in Israel - the psychometric test, the pre-med school exam, the interviews," he says. "In the PA, all they ask for is a high school graduation certificate, and as you know, you don’t have to put in much effort to get good grades. They don’t even look at the level of the subjects, but only the final grade. When I left, around 1,500 of the 28,000 students at the university in total were from Israel, and around 200 of the 1,000 at the medical school. And the number of Israelis has been going up every year. If I were to start studying there today, I believe half of the medical students would be Israelis."

Amir’s experiences in Nablus were similar to those of his younger brother in Jenin. "The first time a girl sat down next to me and then asked me to move because she doesn’t sit next to men, I was surprised, and I moved my chair a few feet away," he says. "I didn’t know how to react, or what I could or couldn’t say. I was in a place where I didn’t know how things work. Yes, we’re the same people, and we speak the same language and like the same food, but there’s a level of conservatism there that doesn’t exist where we come from. That said, I can tell you that some of the students from the Triangle area understood life there better than us because they grew up in a conservative environment."

"Take, for example, the dormitories for the female students," Adi says. "The building closes at 10 o’clock in the evening. You can’t go out and you can’t go in, and if one of the girls is left outside after it closes, they call her parents and tell them that their daughter got back to the building after 10. How do the girls feel about it? They say it’s like a prison. It really sucks and lots of girls leave because of such things."

So after all of that, how did you feel when you got to Odesa?

Adi laughs. "I felt that everything was different," he says. "I felt freer and more at ease. I suddenly realized what it means to be a student. Being a student isn’t just about studies. A student needs to have a bit of a life too - something for the soul that also affects the way you study. I felt it in Ukraine, but not at all in Jenin."

Amir’s decision to move to Odesa was prompted by his struggles to deal with the endless red tape at the university in Nablus. The bureaucracy, he says, shows scant regard for the needs of the students. "No matter what you ask for there, it has to go through a thousand and one people, and then you don’t even get it in the end. They look down on you as a student - and if you don’t like it, you’re welcome to leave. Because they’re so eager to compete with other universities and to be No. 1, it’s important for them to maintain a very high level.

"So they create such a stressful atmosphere that it’s simply impossible to enjoy any kind of student life. You’re constantly busy with assignments and tests and exams, and when I speak to friends who are studying in Israel and compare things, the material is the same, but the studies in Israel are a lot more laid-back. In Nablus, there are tests every single week. Sometimes, you’ll even have two on the same day. Students there don’t have any time to think; just to sit down and memorize. You acquire knowledge but you always feel stressed and you get the sense that they don’t care about you."

Tuition at West Bank universities can reach as high as 40,000-50,000 shekels a year - and that’s excluding living expenses. Consequently, students from Israel are immediately marked as wealthy and exploitable. "In the village where I lived," Adi says, "I paid something like a thousand shekels a month in rent. That’s really a lot for the Jenin area, and I believe if I hadn’t been from Israel, they would have asked for less."

His brother, Amir, agrees: "You see the same thing every Saturday in Jenin and Qalqilya when Arabs from Israel come to shop there. Prices go up a little on those days."

Will the Emirates change the picture?

While it’s safe to assume that the vast majority of students from Israel had visited the West Bank before starting to study there, it’s clear that life on the other side of the Israeli checkpoints and barriers is very different from the experiences of an occasional visit. "I genuinely understood that they had a hard time there," says Amir and Adi’s father, sociologist Dr. Nohad Ali, chairman of the Center for Multicultural Studies at the Western Galilee College. "In the summer, for example, there are power outages for hours on end because Israel shuts down the supply, and then on boiling hot summer days, you can’t even turn on an air conditioner," he says. "Water outages are a frequent occurrence too. There’s no cultural life. And beyond that, there’s no real integration between Arab students from Israel and those from the territories. They’re two separate groups.

"Take, for example, the issue of Ramadan, when the difficulties are amplified. Even if you don’t fast, you’re required, indirectly, to pretend that you do. You can’t be seen with food, the university cafeterias are closed, and the water coolers are turned off too. That’s certainly religious coercion."

Zubeida Nawata: "I’ve nothing bad to say about the level of education at the university in Jenin since it’s very high and the lecturers are all at the highest standard, but the vibe, the interaction and the bureaucracy are all unpleasant, and the differences are huge. Racism in Jenin against us as students from inside Israel is widespread and unpleasant.

Were you disappointed when Adi left school in Jenin because of these problems?

"I understood him. It was really tough for him. When he was studying in Jenin, Thursdays were a short day and he finished school at two. He’d be home already by three-fifteen! Classes on Sundays started at eight in the morning, but he wasn’t willing to even consider spending the night there on Saturdays and getting a proper night’s sleep. He’d wake up at home on Sunday morning at five to avoid having to spend a few more hours there."

As head of the Arab-Jews-State Project at the Samuel Neaman Institute for National Policy Research, Ali Snr. is well acquainted with the subject. "The Arabs in Israel," he says, "can be defined as an orphaned society - orphaned of its father and its mother. The State of Israel doesn’t treat them like legitimate sons and daughters, and the Palestinian father isn’t really a father who protects, embraces and lends a hand."

In a book focused on higher education among Israel’s Arab minority, Dr. Nohad Ali and his co-writer, Dr. Rima’a Da’as, review the obstacles facing Israeli Arabs in the Israeli higher education system and illustrate how these obstacles are pushing young people into studying abroad, with an emphasis on the multidisciplinary problems that arise as a result.

"The difficulties involved in getting young Arabs into higher education institutions in Israel are often so great that quite a large number of families are willing to spend huge sums to provide the next generation with higher learning, which costs at least four times more than it does within the Green Line," Ali says, estimating that around 8,000 Israeli Arabs are studying currently in the PA, and in Jenin and Nablus in particular, where the proportion of Israeli students tops 50 percent and 15 percent of all students there respectively.

According to Ali, several hundred Israeli Arabs are also studying at Birzeit University near Ramallah and Hebron University, where they make up less than a tenth of the student body at the two institutions. Most of the Israeli students in the PA, he says, are studying towards degrees in the field of medicine, like general medicine, dentistry, nursing and physiotherapy. The remainder, including physical education and language students, make up the minority.

Ali says the recent increase in the number of Israeli Arabs studying at West Bank universities is the result of economic constraints, noting that tuition fees at universities in Jordan - an attractive destination for Israeli students for years - have risen markedly in recent years. "With the fees in Jordan getting higher and higher, at the private universities in particular, there’s been a shift towards the West Bank, and I don’t think it has anything to do with the war in 2014 [Operation Protective Edge]," he says.

When asked if the fresh peace agreement between Israel and the United Arab Emirates could lead to a fall-off in the prestige of higher education in the PA and the migration of students from Israel to institutions in the Gulf, Ali says that studies in the West Bank have already lost some of their luster. "The first reason," he says, "is that prices there have also risen, especially at the private universities like the Arab American University in Jenin, and also because both the Israelis and the Palestinians make it difficult for Arab citizens of Israel to study in the PA. There, they make things difficult in terms of the tuition, and here, they’re constantly raising the standards, so the migration these days is towards Eastern Europe. On the Israeli side, the tough approach to students who study in the PA is clearly illustrated by the demands placed, for example, on nursing students - the question of whether to complete an internship there or here, the requirement that they work in a nursing home for a year before being able to work in a hospital. Things like that.

"As for the Emirates, I think that question needs to be broken down into two parts - one for students, and one for academic staff. I don’t expect a sharp change of direction from the students, given that the cost of living in the Emirates is very high and doesn’t correspond with the socioeconomic status of the Arab population in Israel. Furthermore, Arab society isn’t all that familiar with the research institutions and universities in the Emirates.

"What I’m saying now, however, could change if they embark on the same process that years ago prompted Arab students from Israel to take up studies in Jordan - the Jordanian king simply dished out scholarships to the Arab parties. If the Crown Prince of the Emirates does the same and students can study there on the kingdom’s dime, there may be a shift in that direction, but I don’t expect anything significant. When it comes to academic staff, if graduates of doctoral programs are offered good employment conditions - like the extremely generous ones on offer to lecturers at Qatar University - I’d expect some to try their luck there."

One-fifth study abroad

According to data published last October by the Council for Higher Education, the proportion of students from the Arab sector at higher learning institutions in Israel, across all degrees, rose from 10 percent in 2008 (about 24,000) to 18 percent (about 51,000) in the last academic year. Nonetheless, a study published last year by researchers from the Chief Economist’s Office at the Finance Ministry paints a far less rosy picture. While the proportion of Arab students in Israel is indeed nearing the overall Arab share of the population (some 20 percent), Arabs make up around 30 percent of Israel’s population in terms of a university-going age of around 20. Furthermore, the study points to shortcomings in the absorption of Arab youth in higher education institutions in the country - high dropout rates, huge gaps between men and women, and a growing trend of young Arabs applying to study abroad.

Birzeit University, near Ramallah. Photo: Shutterstock

Thus, in 2018, around 20 percent of Arab students studied abroad, compared to just 5 percent of Jewish students. According to data collected by Dr. Kussai Haj-Yehia from Beit Berl College and Dr. Khalid Arar of Sakhnin College, most of the Arab students from Israel who study abroad apply to universities in Jordan and the Palestinian Authority.

Iyat Zoabi, 21, from Kafr Misr in northeastern Israel, is a dentistry student in Jenin. She says that she decided to study in the West Bank after running into difficulties with the higher education system in Israel. "I looked into my options at universities in Israel and the Arab American University in Jenin and Jordan, and although studying in Israel is less expensive, the admission requirements, and especially the psychometric test, led me to choose elsewhere - not to mention the language. My Hebrew isn’t very good and that also deterred me from studying at an Israeli university. Yes, the lectures in Jenin are in English, but everything around them is in Arabic and that makes things easier for me. And there’s also the matter of accommodation; I come from a conservative family and living in dorms designated for female students makes it all more acceptable."

Zoabi describes the studies as particularly difficult and speaks highly of the level of tuition, noting that the efforts invested by the students are reflected in the results of the Israeli licensing exams, which almost 100 percent of the Arab American University graduates pass. She stresses, too, that the Arab American University doesn’t allow students to sit an exam a second time, as is customary at Israeli schools, and that students who fail a final exam are required to repeat the course. Naturally, she adds, these regulations have a significant effect on the students’ drive to invest in their studies.

Suzanne Sharara, 26, from Nazareth, also sounds positive when she talks about her studies on the other side of the Green Line. She earned a degree in journalism and Arab literature at the Arab American University of Jenin and describes her experience there as "beyond wonderful."

Dr. Nohad Ali. Photo: Shlomi Yosef

"Yes, there are differences when it comes to certain customs and traditions, but it was a unique experience," she recalls. "From the very beginning, I wanted to study journalism and Arab literature, but the admission requirements at the Israeli universities are tough, and the teaching methods aren’t as fun and practical as they are in Jenin. I have family members who studied the same subjects at universities in Israel and I’ve spoken to them. I really enjoyed the tuition in Jenin. The lecturers there are of the highest standard and the atmosphere is wonderful. If I could turn back the clock, I’d study there again."

Sharara is aware, of course, that student life in the West Bank is not a breeze for everyone. "There are cultural differences, and some students struggle to accept them," she says. "Especially the female students, and the ones who don’t wear a hijab in particular, because of things the young men say; but you can ignore the things that can get in the way of your studies and simply enjoy the quality of the education. When I first started studying in Jenin, there weren’t many students from Israel with me there, and I felt a little alienated in the beginning. But things are different today. Thousands of Israelis study there now, and a student can really feel at home."

Unlike Zoabi and Sharara, Zubeida Nawata, 24, from the town of Reineh near Nazareth, experienced something completely different. Nawata is now a law student at the Israel Academic College in Ramat Gan, but like her two brothers, she also began her academic journey in the West Bank. She’s always wanted to study law, she says, but when it came time to go to university, her father intervened and persuaded her to register for the Medical Laboratory Sciences program in Jenin.

"I’ve nothing bad to say about the level of education at the university in Jenin since it’s very high and the lecturers are all at the highest standard," she says. "But the vibe, the interaction and the bureaucracy are all unpleasant, and the differences are huge. I couldn’t stand the schooling there, the atmosphere, the customs and the traditions. Nothing there suited me. Racism in Jenin against us as students from inside Israel is widespread and unpleasant.

Amir Ali: "Every year,the Shin Bet selects a handful of students and calls them in for questioning, causing all the students to fear that there’s an asfur [bird in Arabic] among them that’s talking to the security service. People return from such questioning with frightening stories. Afterwards everyone starts to be extra careful.

"There’s racism in Tel Aviv too, like everywhere else, but it’s not nearly as bad. In Tel Aviv, I’ve found the student vibe I’ve wanted. I’m studying the subject I’ve loved since childhood, and despite the high financial costs of the college I’m at, it was a critical move for me; I couldn’t stay there any longer. My family takes care of my tuition fees, and I’ve started working recently at a law firm, so I’m on the right path towards the future."

The elephant in the room

Life in the West Bank exposes Arab Israeli students to the daily reality of the occupation, sparking a process of so-called Palestinianization among them. "When they see what the soldiers are doing there, they experience the pain of the Palestinians," says Amir Ali. "I know that this is very much the case in the Nablus area, where they see the army clearing the roads before religious Israelis come to visit ​​Joseph's Tomb. Their Palestinian identity is undoubtedly strengthened, despite the understanding that there are cultural differences between the two populations."

"If you’re on a student bus, for example," his younger brother, Adi, adds, "you’ll usually get through a checkpoint pretty easily, but if you’re in a private car, they can detain you with questions and checks and keep you there for an hour or two."

Zoabi agrees. "It’s easy to travel to and from Jenin with your family or in a designated minibus," she says, "but when the crossings are closed for security reasons or on Jewish holidays or because of the coronavirus, it’s more of a problem, and we have to drive a very long way to get to the university."

Suzanne Sharara "From the very beginning, I wanted to study journalism and Arab literature, but the admission requirements at the Israeli universities are tough, and the teaching methods aren’t as fun and practical as they are in Jenin. I really enjoyed the tuition in Jenin. The lecturers there are of the highest standard and the atmosphere is wonderful. If I could turn back the clock, I’d study there again."

And here we come to the elephant in the room: the Shin Bet security service’s constant monitoring of Israeli students in the PA. And the reason: Concerns on the part of the defense establishment that during their studies, the Israeli Arab will undergo a process of Palestinianization and radicalization that may, in extreme cases, lead to cooperation with terrorist cells.

Ami Ayalon, Shin Bet chief from 1996 to 2000, says he’s unaware of the defense establishment’s current position regarding Arab Israeli students in the PA. In the past, he recounts, the number of Arab Israelis studying in the PA was a lot smaller because the degrees awarded by the universities there weren’t widely recognized. During his term in office, he adds, Turkey was a popular destination for a fair number of Arab students from Israel, defining them in retrospect as "no less problematic."

The Shin Bet, Ayalon says, was concerned at the time primarily with the Arab Israeli students at Hebron University, where the potential for radicalization was more of a threat. "We didn’t like it one bit," he says, "but because there’s no real way of dealing with it, what the security service did was to employ intelligence methods to try to see just how much people were influenced by the studies there and were susceptible to recruitment."

Where you concerned about recruitment for hostile activities or simply radicalization in general?

"It troubled us in both respects. Both in terms of the potential for recruitment, and in terms of the change in their worldview. You know how things are at a university and just how much academic studies influence one’s worldview, and especially in the fields of the social sciences and humanities. The social sciences and humanities shape the way we interpret our reality, but we had no way of dealing with the issue of indoctrination."

Hebron University. Photo: Shutterstock

And what about the view from the other side? "Every year," says Amir Ali, "the Shin Bet selects a handful of students and calls them in for questioning, causing all the students to fear that there’s an asfur [bird in Arabic] among them that’s talking to the security service. People return from such questioning with frightening stories. A friend of mine is a good example: He was called in for questioning and the investigator asked him why he had forgotten his phone charger in Nablus. In other words, the investigator was telling him that he knows what’s going on inside his home. During the questioning of another student, the investigator gave the guy a phone number and said to him: ‘Call this number and, wherever you are, I’ll tell you your exact location, who’s standing next to you - even the color of your underwear.’ When others hear stories like that, everyone starts to be extra careful.

"Some of the students from the PA are genuinely eager to know about life in Israel, but often we’re afraid to talk to them. Even if it’s someone I’ve known for a few years, I can’t be sure who or what he is. Consequently, conversations between people are completely apolitical. It’s true in the case of interaction with students from there, and even more so among ourselves, the Israelis. People don’t want to get into trouble."

An Arab research university in the Galilee? A gateway to integration

While thousands of Arab Israeli students are seeking out higher education opportunities in the West Bank and overseas, a heated debate is raging over the establishment of an Arab research university in the Galilee. For the time being, however, the plan is being held up by opposition from the state.

"Israel doesn’t accept them as students, but no choice but to accept them as doctors? That’s absurd," says Dr. Nohad Ali. "And why is it a problem? Because even from an economical perspective, every one of those students is spending hundreds of thousands of shekels outside the borders of the state, and causing a lot of resentment among the students too - the feeling of being a second-class citizen."

Ami Ayalon, former Shin Bet chief, says he doesn’t know where Israel’s security services currently stand on the idea of an Arab research university in the Galilee. He does say, however, that he’s an ardent fan of the idea.

"I was chairman of Haifa University’s Executive Committee for six years and I was very supportive of the move, which sadly failed to materialize in the end," he says. "I believed it was in the interests of Haifa University to spearhead such a move for two reasons: One, because Arab society in northern Israel clearly has extraordinary academic potential and it would be a shame to waste that; we’re competing after all for the minds of youth who can become academic researchers in all fields. And two, I thought we should be among those bodies promoting a process that would see Jewish students attending such a university too - in the same way that I, as a secular individual, studied at Bar-Ilan University.

"We’ve created a tribal society, just like President Rivlin said, and we’ve given rise to a real ideology of segregation. Look at our education system, in which each tribe has an education system of its own. So we don’t get to mix with Arabs in our schools, we don’t enlist them in the military, and then there’s the workplace too. But educational institutions could have served as the places where young people meet and get acquainted, and there’s nothing better than getting to know someone in person. During my time with the Shin Bet, we looked into introducing some kind of national service, which we thought could ensure that Israeli Arabs go through a process of Israelization and not Palestinianization or Islamization."

Aren’t you worried that a university such as the proposed one could serve as fertile ground for extremism and nationalism?

"There always that danger. The risk exists, but it comes down to a question of how you manage the risks, and I believe that if we manage things properly, the opportunity outweighs the risk. I believe the Shin Bet sees it this way too, but I haven’t inquired. Traditionally, the Shin Bet has always been more pragmatic in terms of its approach to the threat posed by Israel’s Arabs. When Highway 6 was built and large tracts of land had to be expropriated, the Shin Bet was the body that went to the state and said: ‘Stop talking to the Arabs about money, land means much more than money to them, and start talking to them in terms of dunam for dunam, somewhere reasonable, where they can work the land.’ That’s a good example of how compromises and arrangements can be reached without violence."