Panel 7: On and Off Campus: Academia and the Mixed City


Dr. Maya Kahanoff, Senior Lecturer in the M.A. Program in Conflict Research, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem


Liat Mayberg, Among the founders of the Haredi pre-academic program and coordinator on behalf of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Rabbi Nehemia Steinberger, Director of the Haredi pre-academic program at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Amna Freg, Coordinator of Arab Students, Student Union, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Asmaa Mara’ee-Zoabi, Graduate of the Swiss Center for Conflict Research, the Hebrew University of Jerusalem

Maya Kahanoff

Compared with Israeli society at large, the university isn’t that bad. Different populations manage to co-exist most of the time. Students are enlightened and they don’t silence others. Recently, the administration acknowledged holidays celebrated by other religions. Yet the populations remain separate, also within the university. This is my interpretation. Arab students don’t always feel they can express themselves freely. There is alienation and clearly a divide exists, due to differences in language and symbols.

Various frameworks within the university try to bring together different populations. There are courses aimed at creating dialogue. In the past, many Arab students enrolled in these classes, but recently less so. People get burnt out. Jewish students want to get to know the “other,” to become closer, and promote co-existence. The Palestinians want to discuss the conflict, discrimination, and the occupation. These themes tend not to come up in dialogue encounters. Arab students, who are educated and politically aware, perceive themselves as agents of change and thus refrain from participating in such encounters. They seek more progressive dialogue that provides space to discuss the conflict. We have, unwisely, refrained from combining the personal and political, the need for identity with the need to co-exist. These are my impressions of what’s happening on campus.

I would like to divide this panel into two parts. First, we will discuss openness and closeness regarding Palestinian groups. Next we will hear about openness and closeness vis-à-vis the ultra-Orthodox.

Amna Freg

Yesterday another young Arab woman, from Haifa, was murdered. I mention this not because of its relevance to our discussion, but because you don’t hear about this issue despite its importance.

When I was 18, I enrolled in university. I chose to study in Jerusalem because both my parents graduated from the Hebrew University. There is a palpable divide between Jewish and Arab students. The latter face many difficulties: language, age difference, and the general atmosphere. Two years ago, the border police entered the university to disperse Arab students who were demonstrating; they dragged them on the floor. This wouldn’t have happened to Jewish protesters.

Jewish students are prejudiced and Arab students keep to themselves. In the accounting department, for example, there are many Arab students. Tearing down barriers becomes less urgent when you are surrounded by other Arabs.

The city itself contributes to this tension. Nearly half of the Arab students are from East Jerusalem. An Arab student from the north who lives in the dormitories and walks to the university every morning is very different from a student from Silwan, Shuafat, or Beit Hanina. The East Jerusalem student may have needed to go through a roadblock, perhaps the neighbor’s son was arrested, or a near-by house demolished. That student arrives at school bearing a burden, which affects the atmosphere on campus. This isn’t an issue on other campuses.

I was elected to represent the accounting department within the student union, voted into office by my Arab peers. During my campaign, I encountered racism. The student union is large and powerful, which is why I decided to accept the position of coordinator for the Arab student body. In that capacity, we tried to create encounters between Jews and Arabs. When talking with Jewish students, the conversation tended to focus on the conflict. I felt forced to constantly provide explanations and represent the Palestinians. That was exhausting.

Asmaa Mara’ee-Zoabi

I am from the North, I belong to the Arab minority, and I am an Israeli citizen. Each of us comes with our own personal baggage. I came to Jerusalem to study at the university. My husband and I lived in Beit Safafa.

My main project at “Ir Amim” was a “know your rights” pamphlet about tenants’ rights. Many residents of East Jerusalem are protected tenants. In 1948, the Jordanian army occupied East Jerusalem and signed protected tenancy contracts with the citizens. These contracts were transferred to the Israeli General Custodian in 1967 – when Israel annexed the land, but not its residents. With such contracts, the threat of eviction constantly looms. People are unaware of their legal rights and don’t have the skills to deal with the situation.

I chose this project because housing is a fundamental right. My goal was to raise awareness, provide tools for fighting [the system], and empower the Palestinians in East Jerusalem. Ultimately, my goal was to transform the conflict. Many NGOs manage the conflict, but I believe we should strive to resolve the conflict once and for all, instead of settling for management of it.

Academia gives us research tools and knowledge. On the ground people tend to have a narrower focus, surely. Hence the importance of the comprehensive academic approach. It is difficult to examine Jerusalem in isolation from the conflict. Even academia can’t be detached from the conflict, influencing it and being influenced. Integrating civic society and academics is beneficial. On a personal level, I have benefited from this cooperation. It develops awareness and fosters openness.

There is diversity within the Palestinian minority. East Jerusalem residents treated me like an outsider. The conflict is complex. On one hand, the Palestinian minority is in conflict with the Israeli and Jewish majority. On the other hand, there are also internal Palestinian conflicts. What do we need right now? Uni-national dialogue or encountering the “other”? I don’t have answers. Awareness itself is a note-worthy accomplishment, enabling us to progress and conduct better dialogue among ourselves and with the “other.”

Our identity influences our [professional] horizons. As minority members who hold various positions, we represent our group, but our identities are fixed. Barriers constrain our professional development. NGOs are initiated and funded by Israelis. At the most basic level, they have the interest of the state in mind, which is a hurdle for us. Left-wing NGOs tend to preserve the current situation, to some extent. Arabs employed by those NGOs can’t grow past their token positions.

Liat Mayberg

Members of the ultra-Orthodox community who want to enroll at the university must first pass a pre-academic preparatory course [Mechina]. The first such program began November 2012. The preparatory studies are gender-separated, but the university insisted that their classes be co-ed. In contrast, colleges offer separate classes for men and women. As a result, different people attend each type of institution. Recruiting the ultra-Orthodox can be challenging. Those who choose the university must be more open-minded.

The ultra-Orthodox lack elementary education, learning skills, learning habits, and literacy skills. The preparatory course is their entry ticket to the university, and we try to prepare them as best as we can. The biggest problem is learning English. We succeed at bringing them to the university entrance level.

I see our work as a mission of national importance, and hope that more ultra-Orthodox students will choose to enroll. The current cohort has 35 students, and I dream of 100 students per cohort.

Rabbi Nehemia Steinberger

I will talk about the ultra-Orthodox experience at the university. This community espouses seclusion, which poses an extra challenge. It is even difficult to recruit speakers for panels such as this one today.

I grew up in Jerusalem, and studied in the ultra-Orthodox education system for ten years. I was surrounded by poverty. This is what led me to leave that system. Ultra-Orthodox society is undergoing changes caused by the shattering of ideology by poverty. There is a need, of national proportions, to integrate members of the ultra-Orthodox community in the job market, and the path to solid employment starts at the academy.

The university is different than the colleges. An ultra-Orthodox man attending an all-male college stays within the familiar framework; he is not challenged by it. There are also many women who graduate from the colleges. Yet the university is more complicated. It is the temple of secularism. You reach the university and discover secularism isn’t an empty vessel, as you were taught, and you experience culture shock. There is curiosity and thirst for knowledge.  The ultra-Orthodox definitely value wisdom.

On top of this, the university is co-ed. This is uncomfortable, essentially a foreign experience. When I was twenty-two, I was married through a matchmaker. That was the first time I spoke to a woman. The most significant challenge seems to be socialization. Elementary questions, such as where to sit, whom to borrow notes from. I thought of myself as an open-minded member of the ultra-Orthodox community, yet the situation challenged me. That was my first encounter with secular society. You are different and you stand out.

There are about 200 ultra-Orthodox students studying in different departments, each must cope with such difficulties on their own. There is no facility that could serve as their home on campus. Recently two of our graduates formed a student group, and they are represented in the general student union. The university has been patient and demonstrated goodwill. The Mechina staff feels responsible for our graduates, and we try to advocate on behalf of the ultra-Orthodox students at the university.

Each student that decides to study at the university resonates within their community. The Hebrew University is a respectable institution, with much prestige. Most of the [ultra-Orthodox] students at the Hebrew University had originally studied at leading “litvak” yeshivot.

Maya Kahanoff

What motivates you?

Amna Freg

The student union is powerful, it is the only entity recognized by the university. During my first year there, I learned my rights. I came to believe that change could only be created through the student union. It is crucial that university services be made available to Arab students, especially during the first years [of study].  My first year was very difficult academically and I experienced cultural shock. I have been motivated by wanting to help students in similar situations.

Asmaa Mara’ee-Zoabi

I am motivated by both my identity and reality. So often I just wanted to avoid dealing with the conflict, it only weakened me further. I am a woman from the Arab minority. If I escape reality, I will be stuck in the powerless position assigned to me. The other option is action; the only course that will move us forwards. I also want everyone to be content. In that case, dreams also motivate us.

Academia is replete with openness. It gives me hope that I can influence reality and, in turn, be influenced by it. It isn’t that simple. You can take the easy path to blending in, but I think we must preserve our identity while remaining part of society. There are also voices opposing integration. It’s not simple, but taking action is the only way forward. We shouldn’t give up.

Question from the audience

How do members of the ultra-Orthodox community perceive Palestinians? How do Palestinians perceive the ultra-Orthodox?

Amna Freg

I do not represent the Arab society, so I can only speak for myself. I feel more akin to an ultra-Orthodox Jew than a secular Jew. Our lifestyle is similar, our attitude towards religion, and the size of our families. I live in Kfar Kasem, which is conservative and devout. But I have no interaction with the ultra-Orthodox. I know only that the Arab MKs [members of parliament] get along with the ultra-Orthodox MK. In my opinion, that is significant.

Rabbi Nehemia Steinberger

I participated in the “Directing Together” program and became friendly with the Palestinian colleagues. Our lifestyles are quite similar.

Liat Mayberg

I don’t allow political discussions in the Mechina. This subject doesn’t come up.

Asmaa Mara’ee-Zoabi

The ultra-Orthodox and the Arabs are two minorities. The Palestinians like the ultra-Orthodox approach. This could be a bridge. If more ultra-Orthodox participated in dialogue groups, they could help bridge the gap. Yet such interactions don’t currently take place.

I’ll add that Israeli students want to discuss the current situation, and refrain from discussing history. Whenever contested issues come up, dialogue hits a dead end. Encounter groups are mostly initiated by Israelis and, as such, they dictate the rules. Language, facilitators, and funding significantly influence encounters. The structure must change, fundamentally. Uni-national groups should prepare in advance.

Question from the audience

How long does it take to prepare ultra-Orthodox students for university?

Rabbi Nehemia Steinberger

The pre-academic course is quite intensive and runs for 14 months. This isn’t an easy task.