On Campus at Ibillin

After many years of planning, the first Arab university in Israel opens its first academic year this week.

Joseph Algazy
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Joseph Algazy

"For years we dreamed about something that we felt we deserved. We have been able to realize our people's dream and establish an institution for academic studies. We waited more than 50 years for this and we have taken the first step in the establishment of a university that will open its doors to all who seek knowledge - Arab and Jew, Christian, Muslim and Druze."

With these words, Bishop Dr. Elias Chacour declared this Tuesday the opening of the academic year at the first Arab university in Israel, in Ibillin in the Galilee. At this stage, under the license granted to it this summer by the Council for Higher Education in Israel, the university will operate as a branch of the University of Indianapolis in the United States.

The first Arab university in Israel is the fruit of the labors of Bishop Dr. Chacour, who serves as president of the university, and its founding team of professionals. Together they have succeeded in doing what politicians and political parties - content with slogans and declarations in election platforms and pamphlets - failed to do for many years.

At the beginning of his speech, Bishop Dr. Chacour said that the birth had been painful. "We now stand before the newborn babe, the Mar Elias University Campus," he declared. Mar Elias - Saint Elias - is the Arabic name of Elijah the Prophet. The entire system of educational institutions that operates in Ibillin is named after him - from kindergarten through the university. It was Chacour who initiated its establishment and has operated it to this day.

Chacour, 64, known as Abuna Chacour (Father Chacour), is among those who were uprooted from the Arab village of Birim. His family found refuge in the Galilee village of Jish (Gush Halav), and from childhood he was destined for priesthood. Upon completing high school in Nazareth, he was sent to study theology and philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris. In 1965, after six years of study, he was ordained as a priest. He returned to Israel and was sent by the bishop of the Melkite Church in the Galilee at the time to serve as temporary priest in Ibillin. "Luckily for us," say village oldtimers with a touch of humor, "the bishop forget about Chacour and left him here."

Chacour acquired his higher education at the Technion and the universities of Tel Aviv and Michigan. During the 1970s, he was active on the committee for the return of the villagers who had been uprooted from Birim and Ikrit. On August 23, 1972, he was among the leaders of the large demonstration that marched in Jerusalem from Jaffa Gate to the government complex, headed by Archbishop Youssef Raya, with the demand that justice be done for the uprooted residents of the two villages.

The first educational project he established in Ibillin in 1968 was a kindergarten, which during its first years was conducted in his study and his bedroom. Over the years, an elementary school, a secondary school, a teacher's center and a college of technology were established in Ibillin, which now has 11,000 inhabitants. All of the educational institutions were built on Jabal al-Ghoul (the Hill of Demons) that overlooks the valley, property of the Melkite Church. Eventually the name of the hill was changed to Jabal al-Nour (the Hill of Light).

At present, 4,500 students study at these institutions; they are Muslims and Christians, and more than half of them are girls. A minority of the female students wear traditional clothing and headscarves. According to Dr. Amal Baraka, who will join the faculty of the university next year (at present he teaches chemistry at the high school and the college of technology), the high proportion of female students is reflected at all the Mar Elias institutions and derives from the fact that many of the parents who are traditional and want their daughters to acquire an education prefer to send them to study in an Arab locale.

`We are part of you'

Until the outbreak of the intifada in 2000, related Chacour, there was also a class of Jewish 12th graders from Kiryat Shmona and Rosh Pina who studied fashion and design. Today there is only one Jewish student there.

"We shall not rest until at our Arab-Israeli university Jews and Arabs study side by side. And instead of thousands of Arab students from Israel going to Jordan to study, we will work toward having students from Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, other Arab countries and also from distant lands in Europe and America come to study here."

In his speech to the students and lecturers he addressed the members of the Council for Higher Education and said: "Do not be afraid of our existence. Be afraid if and when we cease to exist. We are part of you and it is our fate to live together. We are part of this state and we want to contribute to the building of everything that brings people closer. We believe that peace is built on justice. Justice is achieved by reconciliation and cooperation and through mutual concessions. It would seem that our Jewish brethren are in need of the return of the creative pioneering spirit. They will not achieve this without us. We are here in order to march together, hand in hand, to create an Arab Israeli society, in order to bring back the smile and the hope to this country, to the Middle East and to the whole world."

To the question of whether, given his words and his vision, he will not be considered to have his head in the clouds, the bishop replied: "I'm not living in the clouds. I am aware of the violence and the inferno in which the people in Israel and Palestine are living, and of the fears and the sense of despair. I want us to succeed where the political leaderships, both here and there, have failed. We will educate, especially the younger generation, to a different way of life, to love of human beings as human beings."

In a large oil painting on one of the walls of the main campus building, the artist, a foreign volunteer, quotes among other things a verse from Genesis (26:29): "That thou wilt do us no hurt, as we have not touched thee, and as we have done unto thee nothing but good, and have sent thee away in peace: Thou art now the blessed of the Lord."

Why did the university at Ibillin choose to be a branch of a foreign university?

According to the Dean, Dr. Raed Mualem, who headed the founding team, "When we set out a few years ago, we approached all the universities in Israel - some of which have branches in various places in the country - and asked for their agreement that we operate as a branch of theirs. They rejected us, and we had to look abroad. The choice was Indianapolis University, which is considered one of the best universities in the world, because of the large number of foreign students who study there, and it also has two branches outside the United States, in Greece and in Cyprus."

Upon beginning his work on the strategic establishment team of the Ibillin campus, Dr. Mualem enlisted the help of his classmate at Tel Aviv University, Dr. Zvi Sever, who played an important role in the contacts with government offices and especially the Council for Higher Education. About 10 years ago, Dr. Sever, a zoologist, traded zoology for education, and among other things served as the bureau chief of the former director general of the Education Ministry, Shlomit Amichai.

Dr. Sever rejected the argument by those who opposed the idea of establishing an Arab university in Israel, who said that there was no need for such a university. "This argument is ridiculous. Arabs constitute about 20 percent of the population of the country, while their proportion at the universities comes to only 8 percent. Within a few years the reality that will develop will prove that we were right."

Two values

Both Mualem and Sever note the full cooperation of the Council for Higher Education in the process that took nearly three years. Among other things, they noted that the founding team wrote more than 250 documents, replies to questionnaires and letters to the Council. Under the license, this year three departments will operate at the Ibillin campus - computer science, environmental science and communications studies.

Alongside computer department head Ziyad Hanna, Prof. Nade Bshoti will serve as academic advisor; alongside the head of the environmental science department, Dr. Raed Sharesh, will be Prof. Amiram Shkolnik; heading the communications studies department is Dr. Atef Salama of Taibeh, who in the past held similar positions at Bir Zeit and An Najah universities. At present, about one-quarter of the faculty consists of Jewish lecturers who teach at universities in Israel and abroad. Chacour notes that there was a great response from figures from all walks of life willing to be on the university's board of trustees.

"Two values will guide our activities," Dr. Mualem told the new students at the opening ceremony. "Respect for the individual and his human rights and academic freedom."

The language of instruction and the required textbooks will be English, and therefore efforts will be made to improve the level of the students' knowledge of the English language. Auxiliary texts will be in Arabic and Hebrew. At the end of the program, the students will be awarded B.Sc. degrees in the three subjects, which will be recognized in Israel and the United States. The operating budget for the first year will be $1 million, which came mainly from a worldwide fund-raising campaign run by Chacour. Plans call for adding three new departments of study each year, with the aim of operating 15 departments at the end of five years with the approval of the Council for Higher Education. Later, the founders hope, they will also be able to award master's degrees and doctorates and become an independent university.

According to Chacour, "Among the departments that are planned for the future, we will teach the Arabic language in Arabic and not in Hebrew, as is the case in the universities in Israel. This is embarrassing, and as a result the mother tongue of many of the Arab university graduates in Israel is meager and faulty. Language is not only a means of expression, but also identity and belonging."

Among the many celebrants at the campus on opening day was Naama Abrahami of Ram On, a moshav in the Galilee. By profession, Abrahami is a regional and city planner; she was recruited into her present role by Dr. Sever. She felt that her colleagues on the founding team were "making history." Abrahami noted the feeling of mutual openness among both faculty members and students and expressed satisfaction at being "a partner to a move of great importance, not only for the Arab community in Israel but also for the entire population of the State of Israel."



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