What a university in Ariel means for Arabs in Israel

Susan Drinan | Ma’an News Agency | 23 juillet 2012 | In August 2010 Israel’s Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar announced a special 500 million shekel….

Susan Drinan | Ma’an News Agency | 23 juillet 2012 |

In August 2010 Israel’s Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar announced a special 500 million shekel budget to improve higher education access for Arab and Haredi communities.

In the almost two years since their announcement, the only academic college located in an Arab community – Nazareth Academic Institute – has seen none of those funds, nor any of the standard public funding awarded to other academic colleges in the region.

Over the past week, both Steinitz and Sa’ar have thrown their support behind Ariel College’s bid for university status, including a pledge of 50 million shekels in additional higher education funding to make the shift feasible, while NAI continues to wait. All of which begs the question: What does it say to Arab citizens of Israel that a settlement university will likely be approved and funded before any public investment in the only Arab college?

NAI has struggled for more than a decade to establish an institution of higher education in the Arab community, initially applying for accreditation as a branch campus of Tel Aviv University and later operating as a branch of the US-based University of Indianapolis. It finally opened as an independent, though unfunded, institution in 2010. The government has been mildly responsive, with officials from former Minister of Minority Affairs Avishay Braverman to Sa’ar himself giving lip service to the importance of Arab development, but not actually investing in it through NAI.

The Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development issued a call for public investment in NAI through its 2011 Report on Higher Education in Regional and City Development for the Galilee. Continued disparities between Arab and Jewish community development are “a threat to the long-term sustainable development of Israel,” the report said, suggesting that increased educational investment in Arab communities would boost the regional economy as soon as the medium term.

However, the report argued that all prior attempts at higher education expansion for the Galilee had happened in predominantly Jewish areas and maintained majority Jewish enrollment, sometimes as high as 90 percent of the student body. “Considering the current under-representation of Arab population in tertiary education, steps should be taken to support NAI, which is the first comprehensive Arab higher education institution in Israel,” the report said.

The OECD report was published last year, yet no discernible action has been taken in the nearly eight months since. What does it say when the government ignores OECD recommendations for a region within Israel in favor of a massive investment in permanent infrastructure on occupied land?

Meanwhile, much of the recent debate on universal service legislation has focused on the rights versus obligations of Arab citizens, on an idea that all of Israel’s citizens should share in carrying the weight of the nation. Yet the Ariel decision suggests that no matter how long Arab citizens toil within the system, no matter how much money they pay in taxes and no matter what promises have been made to them around provision of resources, Jewish communities will always take precedence — even when they lie outside of the nation’s recognized borders.

The move by Israeli ministers to support Ariel favors subsidies for Jewish settlers in occupied territory over equitable support for Israel’s minority communities. It favors expansionist politics over a pragmatic investment in the state’s future. It is a move against both moral imperatives and practical judgment.

In short, it is a great shame.

But the move is not simply a blow to ethnic equality within Israel. It also sends a strong message about this government’s view of the prospects for peace. For the rebuff here is not simply against NAI as the only Arab college within Israel — though that would be bad enough. It is also against the only college jointly managed by Israel’s Arab and Jewish citizens in favor of one whose association with the settlement movement negates any sense of partnership. This government has chosen a college whose very existence relies on a continued military presence over the only college to require a core education in peace and multicultural studies.

The message I take from that is ominous indeed.

Susan Drinan is the chairman of Nazareth Academic Institute’s international board of trustees.