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Students Sujud Watan, left, and Rana Ghazail in the Al-Qasemi College library. (Oren Kessler)

In a village straddling Israel and the West Bank, an Arab college is trying to walk the tightest of ropes: reinterpreting the study of Islam for the modern age, and doing so on the dime of the Jewish state.

Al-Qasemi Academic College— which trains both teachers and imams—prides itself on being a pioneer in the instruction of moderate Islam, and it shows encouraging signs to that end. Its president, Mohammad Essawi, is publicly committed to the modernization of religious study, the advancement of Israel’s Arabs, and bridging the gap between them and the country’s Jewish majority.

“We have a unique approach to Islamic studies that includes philosophy, criticism, and even comparative religion,” Essawi said in a rare interview. “Our vision is human-resource development of the Arab minority in Israel. That means highlighting the values of freedom of choice, human rights—especially equality between women and men—and the celebration and creation of knowledge.”

Essawi’s objective is commendable, but the 58-year-old administrator’s task is immense, and challenges are coming at him from three angles. Talks with college administrators and students during recent trips revealed that Al-Qasemi continues to struggle with the more toxic afflictions still poisoning Arab and Muslim society: animus toward Jews, limitations on women’s rights, and an unsettling readiness to countenance terrorism. Then there’s the fact that the school is funded by the Israeli Education Ministry and an American Jewish donor, which inevitably has led to suspicion on the part of some Muslims. And for all of Essawi’s efforts, some of the college’s Jewish neighbors are unwilling to give his college’s attempt at teaching moderate Islam the benefit of the doubt.

“They’re a fifth column,” said one neighbor, the owner of a roadside falafel stand, referring to Israeli Arabs in general. “They’re Amalek.”

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Al-Qasemi lies in the village of Baqa, roughly halfway between Haifa and Tel Aviv, just east of the city of Hadera. The community’s western portion—Baqa al-Gharbiya—is located within Israel and is home to the college and the bulk of the community’s 30,000 people. Across the West Bank separation fence is the village’s eastern portion, Baqa al-Sharqiya, situated within Palestinian Authority jurisdiction.

The college was established in 1989 by local Sufi orders as an “institute of Sharia and Islamic studies” for training imams. Sufism is commonly depicted as a quietest, apolitical strand of Islam dedicated to uncovering the mystical elements of the creed. But like any faith movement, Sufism too has competing streams, some more palatable to Western audiences than others.

Sufi influence on the school’s operation remains substantial. A handful of bearded, cap-and-robe-clad Sufi sheikhs roams its halls, and portraits of the college’s Sufi founders dot its library—the largest Arabic collection in Israel. Abd Al-Rauf Al-Qawasmi, a respected Sufi leader from Hebron, heads the school’s board of trustees, and twice a month Israeli military authorities let him travel from the West Bank to Baqa to attend to college business.

Over the years, the school has expanded its original religious mandate, and today it functions largely as a teachers college: Its 3,500 students (1,500 of them full-time, and most of them female) pursue bachelors and masters degrees in everything from English literature to mathematics to early-childhood care. Still, administrators say Islamic studies remain Al-Qasemi’s flagship.

“We believe it’s most important to make the change not where it’s easiest, but where it’s the most challenging, and that’s Islamic studies,” said Margalit Ziv, the college’s Jewish head of graduate studies and head of its early-childhood center, Bidayat (Arabic for “Beginnings”). “Our vision is to try to integrate two sets of values. One set stems from the Islamic tradition, and the other from the more universal values—or Western ones, depending on your perspective—of democracy and equality,” she said. If its hiring choices are any indication, the school is practicing what it preaches. “It’s no small matter,” said Ziv, “that in an Arab college there’s someone like me—a woman and a Jew—in charge of graduate studies.”

The lion’s share of Al-Qasemi’s funding—1.5 million shekels a year as of 2009, the last year for which data are available—comes from the Education Ministry, whose representatives are convinced the college’s heart is in the right place. “The ministry funds teacher certification,” a spokesman told me, and “study of Islam and Sharia are part of the curriculum in the Arab sector. [Al-Qasemi’s] curriculum has been examined by both the ministry and the Council for Higher Education and found to contain no incitement-related material.” What’s more, the bulk of funding for Bidayat—hundreds of thousands of dollars annually—comes from a San Diego-based Jewish-American philanthropist named Robert Price, the cofounder of Price Club, a defunct nationwide warehouse club chain that in the 1990s merged with, and was later subsumed by, Costco.

Ziv said it’s disappointing, but not surprising, that no Arab donors from Israel or abroad have contributed to Bidayat or to Al-Qasemi itself. “It’s absurd that our only donor is an American Jew,” she conceded. That unfortunate fact, Essawi explained, is just one symptom of more serious handicaps holding back Israeli-Arab society. By phone, the media-shy president told me he believes Israeli Arabs face two main barriers to development and prosperity.

“One barrier is internal and the other external. Internally, there is the status of women and the Arab community’s organization, which is still based on tribal culture and the extended family,” said Essawi, who hails from the Galilee village of Kafr Manda. “Externally, there is the unequal distribution of resources between Jews and Arabs in Israel. We at the college have a commitment both to our community and to greater Israeli society. We see ourselves as a bridge between Israelis and Palestinians, and also between Arabs and Jews within Israel.”

Within Israel, those relations have seen peaks, like the Oslo Accords, and troughs, like the Second Intifada. In the years since those seminal events, Israel’s Jews and Arabs have reverted to a suspicious parallel existence. A 2010 University of Haifa poll found that two-thirds of Israeli Arabs rejected Israel as a Jewish state, while 30 percent opposed its existence under any terms at all. Many Israeli Jews are similarly less than enamored of their Semitic cousins: A Tel Aviv University survey the same year found half of Jewish-Israeli high-school students believe Arabs should not be entitled to the same rights as Jews, nor allowed to run for Knesset seats. For students in religious schools, the figures were higher still.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party is an advocate of transfer, not of Israeli Arabs themselves, but of the Israeli-Palestinian border in any future two-state solution. And leaked memoranda from a decade of Middle East peace negotiations—the so-called “Palestine Papers”—revealed Baqa al-Gharbiya as one of the locales considered for transfer to the putative state of Palestine. If Lieberman has his way, Al-Qasemi may someday find itself in the newborn state of Palestine.

Wassim Younis, the frenetic college spokesman, tried to explain the fragility of Israel’s Arab-Jewish relations with a clumsy attempt at humor. “Some students tell me they want to throw the Jews into the sea,” he told me. “ ‘OK,’ I tell them, ‘Why and how? What about babies? Those poor guys can’t even swim.’ ”

“It’s very difficult for Arabs, who live in a conservative society, to accept criticism,” said Younis. The Quran, Younis argued, never calls for hatred of Jews. “One must read the book in context,” he said. “Muslims and Jews enjoy good relations in it, except in moments of conflict.”

Later, Younis, who is from the nearby village of Arara, told me about a history class that dealt with the Holocaust. “It was hard for the students to comprehend that Jewish victims in the Holocaust were not our enemy,” he said. “It was very difficult for them to admit what they may have known to be true: that Jews too were victims.”

Talks with students echoed the same cognitive dissonance. Sujud Watan is an early-childcare student from Baqa’s twin village of Jatt. Asked about her identity, Watan expressed the anxious ambivalence typical of many of her Israeli Arab peers. “I’m just an Arab Muslim,” the 21-year-old, dressed in a hijab and jilbab overgarment, offered shyly in English. “Obviously I live in Israel, but I’m also Palestinian. I just want to be good with God. I know I live in Israel, and my roots are Palestinian, but I prefer to just say I’m an Arab Muslim.” The hijab, Watan insisted, is a “must” for Islam. “When I wear it, I feel like a queen,” she said.

Her friend Rana Ghazail was bareheaded, wearing a pink T-shirt and black tights. “I can’t say I’m either with one side or against the other,” said Ghazail, also 21, in Hebrew. “For example, there are some who use the word ‘terrorist,’ but I don’t know …” she said, trailing off. Ghazail admitted to pangs of guilt for not covering up. “I sometimes wonder why I don’t wear the hijab,” she said. “I believe very much in my religion. I know have to do it—it’s a must.”

Even Younis, heretofore keen to present himself as a consummate progressive, agreed the question of the hijab is a nonstarter. “The Quran says a woman must cover,” he observed flatly. “There’s nothing to interpret.”

Driving out of Baqa, on a narrow highway flanked by Arab villages and moshavim, I stopped at an improbably situated falafel stand. The Jewish proprietor—an intense, newly religious redhead in his 40s—asked where I had traveled from.

“Baqa.”

“What for?” he said. “The Arabs, they’re all the same.”

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