Islamic College Funded by Jews
The school aims to promote a moderate vision of Islam, but it faces deep skepticism from Jews and Muslims
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.”
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.
They say democracies make good neighbors. For Israel these days, it doesn’t seem so straightforward.