Israeli Universities Still Failing Arab Students When It Comes to Inclusion

Institutions are trying to attract Arab students to fill lecture halls, but in many instances they ignore requests for Arabic signage or websites. Arab faculty, meanwhile, are nearly nonexistent.

Ilan Assayag

Israel's higher education institutes are still failing in their efforts to make universities more inclusive for Arab students, according to research by Haaretz.

An examination found that only Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Tel Aviv University and the University of Haifa have Arabic signage, and even then it is only in central locations. Bar-Ilan University, Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Technion – Israel Institute of Technology, Haifa, and Ariel University (in the West Bank) have no Arabic signage at all. And only the University of Haifa and Hebrew University make Muslim and Christian holidays official vacation days.

In addition, the university’s websites only feature partial Arabic versions, with Arab content often difficult to access. Over the years, only a few university conferences – mostly dealing with the Middle East – have been conducted in Arabic, an official state language and the native language of 20 percent of the population.

About a year ago, a study by two nonprofits (Sikkuy - the Association for the Advancement of Civic Equality and Dirasat, the Arab Center for Law and Policy) found that the universities they examined were not meeting the goals set by the Council for Higher Education when it comes to translating Web content into Arabic. The report was part of a project of the two organizations and the Jerusalem-based Van Leer Institute, with partial funding from the European Union, that also includes the holding of conferences in Arabic.

“There is a correlation between the low status of Arabic and the low status of Arab citizens,” said Yonatan Mendel, an Arabic language researcher from the Van Leer Institute, “and one of the ways to promote equality in Israel and a positive attitude toward Arabic culture is by changing the attitude toward the language. We are not trying to make any university bilingual. By promoting conferences in Arabic, we are drawing attention to the fact that there are a lot of conferences in English and there are conferences in French – but holding a conference in Arabic is not seen as obvious. It’s as if the language didn’t exist.”

Concerns that the promotion of Arabic would harm the status of Hebrew were unfounded, Mendel said. “What will be promoted is democratic values and the values of equality,” he added.

As a result of last year's new conference project, there have been three conferences in Arabic so far, which also featured Jews speaking Arabic. One of the events was held at Hebrew University and was the first Arabic-language conference in the university's 90-year history.

Hebrew University noted that its rector, Prof. Asher Cohen, has led an initiative over the past year to translate faculty members’ names into Arabic, an effort that has so far included the names of about 250 staff people.

Since the publication of the 2014 report on Arabic on university campuses, Sikkuy and groups of academics have been working with the country’s universities to get them to add Arabic signage. The Council for Higher Education's budget committee has even offered funding, but has asked Sikkuy to first estimate the costs involved. The organization said it encountered opposition from some universities and claimed none of them responded promptly.

The Haifa-based Technion said in response that, since 2001, it has been the first academic institution in the country working to provide equal opportunity and enhanced access to Arab students through its preparatory courses. It said it had, among other things, increased the number of Arab students at the school; provided high-tech-oriented education; decreased the Arab student dropout rate; and increase employment assistance and information available in Arabic.

Ariel University, the only Israeli university in the West Bank, said its dean of students, Shmuel Schacham, has arranged for a steering committee to increase access to higher education for Arab students and also a program providing support, integration and advancement of Arab students on campus. Ariel was the only institute willing to provide data on the number of Arab administrative staff. It said there were two such staff, but they were not at the managerial level.

The University of Haifa, Technion and Ben-Gurion University declined to provide information about how many Arab faculty members they have. Among those that did provide data, there are 12 senior Arab faculty members at Hebrew University, 17 at Tel Aviv University and only two at Bar-Ilan University.

Ben-Gurion University said it has two staff members who are responsible for advancement and accessibility for Arab students – the rector’s adviser on Arab student affairs and the dean of students. Efforts include student scholarships and other financial assistance, tutoring and a dropout prevention program, it added.

University of Haifa said that, in accordance with a resolution of the education council, it was devoting major efforts to make higher education available to Arab students and was the first to make the Muslim holiday of Id al-Fitr and the Druze Festival of the Sacrifice, as well as Christmas, official vacation days.

Tel Aviv University said it has begun efforts to recruit Arab administrative staff and that it has Arabic signage on campus with directions to all main locations. Information is available in Arabic on the university website and what is there will be supplemented, the university added. Bar-Ilan University said it is making major efforts to advance the needs of minority students and is working to implement plans to provide greater access to Arab students.

The higher education council, which oversees the country’s colleges and universities, and has a program to enhance accessibility to higher education, said, “An examination has found that all of the higher education institutions participating in the program to expand accessibility [27 of the 29 institutions that receive CHE funding] have translated a substantial portion of their websites,” although it noted that some "have done so in a partial or insufficiently accessible manner." The minimum conditions for translating websites have been refined and will have to be complied with by the middle of December, the CHE added.

With respect to the number of Arab faculty and staff members, the CHE said that this year, for the first time, all of the institutions will be required to provide such data and convene a steering committee on the subject. “In the past four years, there has been an increase in Arab [students] at each degree-granting level [BA, MA and PhD] of about 30 percent. We hope all of the above will ultimately also result in an increase in the institutions’ faculty members,” it concluded.