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Arab Students in Israel Say Their Voices are Muffled

Arab-Israeli student activists say they face an uphill battle to voice their grievances on Israeli campuses, and rising tensions between Israelis and Palestinians since the war in Gaza last summer are worsening the situation.

“The tension between Arab students, Israeli administrators and the Israeli students increases depending on the political situation between Palestine and Israel,” says Kalil Garrar, an Arab political science student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem. “If there is any serious political conflict, Arab students will not feel safe on campus.”

The problem has deteriorated in the year following the 51-day conflict in the Gaza Strip that began last July, after Hamas agents kidnapped and murdered three Israeli teenagers. The incident sparked an Israeli invasion of Gaza and Hamas rocket attacks on Israel. The fighting resulted in the deaths of around 2,100 Palestinians and 72 Israelis.  Subsequently, the war also increased political activity on Israeli campuses—something administrators try to limit, say students.

“The university administration tries sharply to suppress the Arab students’ activity by force or by intimidation,” says Kalil Garrar, an Arab political science student at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Last year, Garrar was among 15 students who protested against “administrative detention,” an Israeli policy where Palestinian prisoners are held indefinitely without charge or trial. The students silently held banners on campus that expressed their solidarity with dozens of Palestinian prisoners who had declared an open-ended hunger strike. Around 12 percent of students at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem are Arab.

“We decided to protest silently, without saying any word,” says Hala Marshood, a Palestinian student who participated in the demonstration.

But the administration took disproportionate action, says Garrar, detailing how university administrators brought in the campus security guards and Israeli police to end the demonstration.

Rabeea, a Palestinian student at the University of Haifa who participated in the protest at Hebrew University, says he was injured in the melee that ensued. “My leg was broken after the Israeli police attacked,” he says.

Three months later, administrators sent Garrar, Marshood and a handful of other protestors notices that they could be remanded to the university’s disciplinary committee because of the allegedly illegal protest. The students enlisted the help of Adalah—the Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel, a human rights organization, and the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel. The university then cancelled the disciplinary process.

Arab students from different Israeli universities protest rules restricting their rights in Jerusalem earlier this year. (By: Amr Abd al Qader)

In response to questions about this case, the spokesman for the Higher Education Institutions, Sharon Achdut, said they do not have any specific information. Mr. Achdut added that “the council for higher education has taken a fundamental stand on public activity on campuses and decided that it views with great importance assuring students’ rights regardless of their ethnicity.”

“Pluralism is a fundamental principle in higher education, so no separation between Arab and Jewish students exists,” he said.

But it doesn’t always play out that way. Arab students who protest on campuses say they often fear for their personal safety.

“If the administration agrees to let us do an event on campus, we will face many Israeli students who will try to drown us out,” says a fourth-year Tel Aviv University law student who asked to remain anonymous. “Every year, we have been attacked by students, especially the extreme right-wing students.”

In May, a right-wing Israeli student caused a scene at the Tel Aviv campus, the law student says. “The Israeli student attacked the stage and ripped the Palestinian flag apart,” he says. “Then, he attacked one of the students.”

The Israeli police arrived and detained the Palestinian student, not the Israeli assailant, the law student said.

Israel has eight universities. Arab students comprise about 16 percent of their student study body, according to the Committee for Educational Guidance for Arab Students in Haifa. Nearly all are Israeli citizens, but many students say that status counted for little.

“Israel deals with the Israeli Jews as a privileged class,” Marshood says.

Language is an issue. Arab students study Hebrew as a second language in their schools. In Jerusalem, they start learning Hebrew only in high school. But Israeli universities teach mainly in Hebrew and occasionally in English. Few subjects other than the Arabic language itself are offered in Arabic, say students. That issue alone wouldn’t necessarily be troubling, but Arab students believe it reflects an anti-Arab bias that saturates Israeli universities.

Others say the Hebrew focus is necessary. “The dominant language of instruction is Hebrew, which makes it easier for graduates to become integrated into Israel’s job market,” Mr. Achdut says.  “Some institutions and specific study programs are taught in English, and (in) some colleges, the language of instruction is Arabic.”

Deeper structural issues in Israeli higher education are also at play.

Israeli higher-education authorities place students in universities according to their scores on national entrance exams. Arab students say Israeli high schools teach to the test, whereas schools attended by Arabs have fewer resources and do not focus on the test.

The role of the military in Israeli life also is a source of contention on campus. Universities fundraise for the Israeli military and let students in the armed services carry their weapons on campus. While administrators discourage Palestinians from organizing, Israeli university administrators don’t crack down on Israeli students’ pro-military demonstrations.

“The Israeli students are treated as superior,” said Marshood. “They can protest and voice their political or academic concerns. But our rights, Arab rights, are lacking.”

These divisions play out in classrooms sometimes, even in group projects.

“I remember in my first year when the teachers divided the students into groups of five students,” says Maysoon al-Horno, a third-year psychology student at the University of Haifa. “Another Arab student and I were in a group with three other Israeli students. Those three girls told us that they want to work alone and they left the group. Their behavior reflected their hate toward us.”

Al-Horno told the course’s professor about what happened because the project required more than two students. The professor said she would talk to the Israeli students, but she didn’t, says  al-Horno.

“We faced many obstacles in doing this project,” she said. “But at least we submitted it on time.”


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