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When Ala Fakhory told his parents that he intended to study at College of Judea and Samaria in Ariel, they were deeply opposed. It was not ideology that caused them to question his decision - it was fear that he would be surrounded by settlers who roam the college armed with pistols. Fakhory, who is one of 250 Arab students who attend the college, insisted. Near the end of his third year of study for a degree in electronic engineering, Fakhory says he experienced no racism on the part of students or faculty. In fact, he says, "Everyone treated me well."

The cabinet's May decision to upgrade the status of the College of Judea and Samaria to a university came on the heels of an academic boycott by the British Association of University Teachers on Bar-Ilan University because of its relations with the college located in the territories (the boycott, which also included the University of Haifa, has been rescinded, for now).

On the day of the cabinet's decision, the college, attended by 8,500 students, received support from a surprising direction: an ad published in Haaretz included the signatures of three leaders of Arab local councils. In the ad, they congratulated the college on opening registration for the coming term.

No racism

Tall, slender, 24-year-old Fakhory was born and lives in the Arab community of Issawiyeh in East Jerusalem. Before beginning his studies at Ariel, he completed two years toward his degree in electronic engineering at the Ort College and he has worked for four years in the East Jerusalem Electric Company.

When asked why he chose to study in Ariel, he responds, "I have Jewish friends, who work for the Israeli Electric Corporation, and some of them study here. They told me about the place. I was planning to study in Tel Aviv or Haifa, but it is more difficult to study and work at the same time there. I also heard the electronics department here is one of the finest in the country."

Fakhory, who defines himself as Palestinian, appeared to be momentarily flustered when asked if the political implications of his studying at this university bother him. But he immediately responded, "Politics didn't interest me. My future is more important. I don't legitimize the settlement by studying here."

But there are those in Fakhory's family who would disagree. "They were opposed, but out of fear - not because of politics. They thought Ariel was a settlement outpost with a few caravans, and they had no idea there was a college here. They said there are extremists there, that I wouldn't get along with them, and that I would face a great deal of racism. They tried to convince me to study somewhere else."

Despite that, even Fakhory was pleasantly surprised. "There is undisclosed racism everywhere. I don't even feel that kind of hidden racism here. Until now, I haven't felt that anyone treated me poorly. Not the faculty or the students."

In order to lend weight to these statements, Fakhory says that about two weeks after he began his studies, he entered a class expecting to see, "a lecturer with a skullcap and a personal weapon. But the professor was really nice. The first month of study was difficult, but there were professors who helped me until I was integrated. One of them is Eliyahu Farber."

Dr. Farber, of the college's electronics department, prefers to talk about the college's state-of-the-art laboratory rather than politics. He says his own goal, and that of other faculty members, is to upgrade the college to a university for the benefit of students and the institution. Farber, who taught at Tel Aviv University before he came to Ariel, believes the college makes a greater effort than universities to encourage students to succeed.

Fakhory does not believe that a student who pays tuition to an Israeli college in the territories represents an obstacle to a Palestinian state. His answer to this question sounded well rehearsed, "Even when I am working, half of my salary goes to income tax. The nation uses that money to build a separation fence that engulfs half of the Palestinian land. I can't choose not to pay income tax. This is also a government college, and the tuition here is government subsidized."

Other Arab students also feel comfortable at the college. When Mahmoud Amash, 22, from Jisr al-Zarqa, wants to describe his satisfaction with the college, he says he often stays here on weekends. When asked if he had a problem settling into an academic institution located in the territories, with a majority of Jewish students, he says no. He had Jewish friends, from Binyamina and Hadera, when he was a high school student in the village, he says. Moreover, he has more Jewish friends than Arab friends in the college.

Amash is an outgoing, smiling second-year student seeking a degree in criminology. He learned of the college through ads published in the media and lives in the dormitories. In his opinion, one of the reasons Arab students study here is because, "criminology is not taught at every university. It is easier to be accepted here, despite the fact that the courses are difficult. Assistance and tutoring is available, which makes it easier to be integrated."

He plans to rent an apartment in Ariel during the coming term, and to study for a master's degree in psychology at the college. Walking from the library to the administration building, he appears to have many friends.

According to Amash, he is not interested in national politics, "despite the fact that there is clearly discrimination in terms of the infrastructure in Arab villages." However, he does appear to be very interested in campus politics - he is an active member of the college's student union. In conjunction with his role as the academic director of the student union, he assists students in academic matters, and with problems with professors and exams. In addition, he represents the Arab students in the student union. He even recently organized a field trip for them.

Before elections, Amash founded a coalition with student union chairman Ilan Bronson, who persuaded him to throw his hat into the ring. Amash proudly claims that Bronson initiated the coalition because he knew Amash would draw Arab and Jewish votes. Bronson, a newly religious Jew, is a fourth-year psychology student from Kfar Sava who is active in the student union for the second year. He is only willing to say that relations in the college are good.

Positive feelings

Amash participated in research evaluating the sense of belonging on the part of Arab students. The soon-to-be-published research examined the feelings of students in Ariel College and Western Galilee College. The research was done concurrently at both colleges by Prof. Dan Soen, a multicultural sociologist and head of interdisciplinary studies at the College of Judea and Samaria; Dr. Nitza Davidovich, director of academic development and a lecturer in the Jewish studies department, also in Ariel, and Dr. Michal Kolan, of Western Galilee College. The results indicated that Arab students have a positive sense of belonging.

Davidovich, who initiated the research, says the idea to research this question arose from her own personal feeling that relations with Arab students at the college were good. "My experience was very positive, and I wanted to examine whether that was coincidental." The questionnaire examined three criteria: students' identification, their positions and how they define the socio-academic climate in their colleges. According to Davidovich, some of the results were surprising. "The Arab students defined themselves as Israelis. They expressed a sense of equality in the institution and a sense of fairness and consideration on the part of the faculty."

She is encouraged by the results, but believes more can be done. "For example, students study apart. Every student studies with a member of his own sector." She stresses that results were positive despite the political context of the college in Ariel. "The College of Judea and Samaria is an unusual case. It has a sensitive label, but, nonetheless, we got the feeling that the campus represents a real bridge." According to her, there is still a need to examine the extent to which Arab students are integrated in the employment market, in continuing research.

Outreach programs

Rfaat Sweidan, the adviser to minority students in the college, including Druze and Circassians students, sits in a small room with walls covered by posters in Arabic and Hebrew. The door is open, and students constantly walk in and out. Their Arabic is occasionally interrupted by Hebrew words for "test" and "semester."

Sweidan has a master's in social work from Bar-Ilan University, and served in a similar capacity at that university as well. He does not limit his role to assistance of Arab students, but also engages in outreach to find potential Arab students beyond the institution.

"I promote programs for the Arab sector in Arab villages throughout the country," he says, "by establishing prepatory courses for the bagrut matriculation exam under the auspices of the college. I also provide counseling pertaining to academic studies for individuals outside the college. Twelfth grade graduates in the Arab sector don't always know what to do. They do not receive counseling in high school, and I try to help them as well. Most of the problems I encounter have to do with studying. But students turn to me with all sorts of problems, when they have a financial problem or a problem with a grade on an exam. If they want to receive special testing concessions or help in receiving a grant. And also sometimes with personal issues."

Sweidan says he has received very few complaints of racism from Arab students. He believes that the decision to study at this college comes also from lack of choice. "My gut feeling is that people come here to study, and they are not interested in ideology or politics. They are looking for a way to advance, and they find it here."

Sweidan enthusiastically describes a flexible system which allows students, at various levels, to attend the college. "Even someone who is not accepted to study at the college may study in the prepatory course. He receives tutoring hours, he can take workshops to improve his study skills and language instruction in English and Hebrew. We help him. It is difficult for Arab students to be accepted by institutions of higher education in Israel. That is why many Arab students study abroad: pharmacology in Jordan, medicine in Europe. In the Arab sector, a student seeking higher education goes wherever he is accepted."