Islamic College Funded by Jews
The school aims to promote a moderate vision of Islam, but it faces deep skepticism from Jews and Muslims
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.
“What for?” he said. “The Arabs, they’re all the same.”
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They say democracies make good neighbors. For Israel these days, it doesn’t seem so straightforward.