The Controversial Family Vying to Run First Israeli-Arab University

With a string of clashes with the authorities over the years, critics wonder whether the state has done its homework on the Badarna family.

Nazya Badarna, head of The College of Sakhnin for Teacher Education, in a still taken from a college promotional video.
YouTube channel of Sakhnin College

Jews don’t know the Badarnas, but the Arab community knows the family very well. Conservatively, the Badarna empire, founded by the father and continued by the sons, is turning over half a billion shekels ($130 million) a year. Now it aspires to turn its giant educational endeavor into the first Israeli-Arab university – and it could well happen, despite previous clashes between the state and the family, chiefly over its lax management habits.

The father, Ahmad Badarna, has been building the business for the last 30 years. Actually, the Badarnas run a whole slew of companies and nonprofit organizations, some of which have similar names – making it quite a feat to keep track.

The businesses turn over hundreds of millions of shekels a year, and their biggest client is the state. The Culture and Sports Ministry alone budgeted 112 million shekels in 2015 for educational endeavors run by the Badarnas for adults and teens.

At the center of the family’s business is a company called National College for Professional Training, which operates in Sakhnin. It has subdivisions: a college for engineering; a whole chain of vocational high schools; a teacher training college (that alone gets tens of millions of shekels a year from the government); and other academic institutions for adults.

This is the basis on which the Badarnas are competing in the race to create the first Israeli-Arab university, in a tender issued by the Council for Higher Education in Israel. Others in the race include Haifa University and Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, but the Sakhnin college complex certainly stands a chance. If the compound in the northern Israel town wins, that means more state budgets – including up to 40 million shekels a year for scholarships.

The Badarnas also own gas stations, licensing bureaus, exclusive rights in the area to handle theoretical exams for future drivers (subcontracted out by the Transportation and Road Safety Ministry), driving schools and various services provided to the Social Affairs Ministry.

One of the Badarnas’ nonprofits, Eidan Hashalom (its official English name is Idan Organization Promoting Peace Fellowship Training and Education), runs schools and preschools, getting about 45 million shekels a year from the Education Ministry.

The key college complex operates in Sakhnin, in the same compound as the The College of Sakhnin for Teacher Education, and engineering schools, and a vehicle-licensing institute.

Much of the compound was built illegally (without permits) – on farmland, to boot. Even when permits were issued, the family tended to ignore their restrictions. For example, a building with a permit for two-story construction has seven stories.

Run-ins with the law

If the Badarnas win the Arab university tender, it will be because the left hand in Israeli officialdom doesn’t know what the right hand is doing, quips a source close to the matter. The Badarna name isn’t only known in the corridors of the Education Ministry, but also to the police and courts, he observes. Indeed, the family has had its run-ins with the law.

For example, in April 2010, the Supreme Court ruled that the father, Ahmad, as owner of the National College for Professional Training, was guilty of building without a permit, exceeding the permit and illegal use of farmland. He took a plea bargain, including six months’ probation for three years and a million-shekel fine.

Ahmad Badarna, head of the National College for Professional Training.
YouTube channel of Sakhnin College

That July, a clerk at the Interior Ministry explained why he refused to renew the father’s gun license (Ahmad Badarna was seeking permits for a hunting rifle and a handgun) – the police had recommended against it. Basically, armed, he was a threat to public safety. After much to-ing and fro-ing, the court agreed to let the father possess a gun, but the police recently voided his permit. Ahmad Badarna denies all allegations, insists he meets the criteria to carry arms and has appealed; the case is pending.

In October 2010, son Amin, a lawyer, was disbarred after admitting to forging documents, bribery and other things to get his license. He has since moved to Romania.

That November, the courts turned down an appeal by the eldest son, Nazya, against a police decision banning him from possessing guns, based on convictions dating from 1995, the interior ministry explained. It added that a fraud investigation had been opened against him in 2001, followed two years later by another one, but they were subsequently closed. To this day, Nazya cannot carry a gun.

None of this stops the government from kowtowing to the family. In May 2010, then-Science and Technology Minister Daniel Hershkowitz stopped by Sakhnin and toured the teacher training college. More difficult to understand is how, in May 2012, the police brass and Transportation and Road Safety Minister Yisrael Katz celebrated the first conference on preventing traffic accidents in the Arab community at the Sakhnin college.

If Katz had done his homework, he would have discovered that, earlier, Jerusalem District Court had ruled against his hosts after the family business sought a permit to be the exclusive provider of the “driving theory” tests in northern Israel (in eight branches), in a project to be run by another son, Zaher. But Zaher at the time owned and ran Lev Hagalil Transportation, which ran a driving school and provided training courses funded by the state.

Misleading evidence

To avoid a conflict of interest, Zaher was told to vacate the management of the driving school. But he later asked the Economy and Industry Ministry to recognize courses held in Lev Hagalil. He claimed a secretary made a mistake, but the courts (motioned by the Badarnas) decided that this, and other evidence, showed double activity by Zaher, and it accepted the Transportation Ministry’s position, which opposed allowing the National College to even bid for handling driving theory tests. The courts even foreclosed on 200,000 shekels (of 750,000 shekels given in the course of the tender), based on the submission of misleading evidence and dishonesty.

Perhaps the Transportation Ministry should have talked to the Education Ministry. In 2003, the Badarnas’ college was accused of falsifying the number of students in schools in East Jerusalem, in order to gain greater financial support, which it was forced to return. The company denies any wrongdoing and says a misunderstanding arose 16 years ago, and the matter was closed with the Education Ministry.

In 2005, the Transportation Ministry itself found that a car-testing bureau owned by the family in Sakhnin was rubber-stamping cars with malfunctions. Nothing was done about it, though, and the next year it landed permission to provide driving-theory tests.

Then there’s that million-shekel fine for construction violations in Sakhnin, plus 800,000 shekels for failing to pay the fine on time. A court lowered the interest to 400,000 shekels, on the grounds that the building violations had been repaired.

The teacher training college, founded as a seminar in 2001, is the jewel in the family’s crown. It became a proper teacher training college in 2005. That year, the higher education council agree to let it grant BA degrees in teaching; later, MA programs were also approved.

It seems financially robust: According to its report for 2014, it spent 50 million shekels on teacher training and brought in revenues of 74 million shekels. It received 32 million shekels from the Education Ministry for students (about the same every year); and another 42 million shekels for tuition support. Under assets, it posted 161 million shekels – up 20 million from the year before

Ahmad Badarna referred us for response to the college president, Mohammed Khalil, who says the college hasn’t been associated with the family for years. It rents the buildings from them, but that’s all. However, two years ago, in his defense against a lawsuit by the Israel Land Authority, Badarna himself claimed: “I manage the academic colleges.”

Court battle

Education is at the heart of the Badarna family’s activity. The National College runs 32 vocational training schools around the country, with 12,000 students, and competes with the Amal and Ort chains.

In 2015, 14 of its schools (with 3,500 students) received 80 million shekels from the Economy and Industry Ministry. That said, in 2012 and 2014, the courts ordered the National College to vacate schools – in I’billin and Daliat al-Carmel – over administrative squabbles with the state.

In a statement to Haaretz, the National College denied various allegations raised over the years about building permits, and notes its devotion to promoting education in Israel for all, mainly the non-Jewish communities. “The Badarna family views education and vocational training to be the future of the state and its people, and therefore shall continue with its social endeavors,” the statement said. Which may yet include founding the country’s first Israeli-Arab university.