Palestinians Are Attending Hebrew U in Record Numbers, Changing the Face of Jerusalem

Separation barrier and tough job market seen as spurring spike of East Jerusalem residents on campus. The trend is bringing the city's Palestinian and Jewish communities closer, and creating a new elite

The Hebrew University campus, October 2019.
Olivier Fitoussi

“The Forum,” as anyone who’s studied at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem knows, is the central plaza on the Mount Scopus campus, where students in the law, humanities and social science faculties congregate. It’s also a good barometer of the human composition of the university.

Anyone who wandered by there this week as the new school year began could sense that the composition of university’s student body has undergone a change. Here and there you see a few soldiers in uniform, the result of a controversial partnership between the army and the university in a program called Havatzalot, designed for soldiers in military intelligence. There were also some uniformed policemen, partaking in another partnership, a few ultra-Orthodox men, a Christian priest, some secular and religious Jewish students.

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But oddly enough a large group of Palestinian women gathered near a sign that said “A Jewish soul – building a connected future.” This year, more than ever before, a Palestinian presence is evident on the campus.

The way the Forum looks concords with data showing a sharp surge in the number of Palestinian students from Jerusalem attending the university in recent years. The number of Palestinian students in preparatory courses has doubled this year, climbing to 410 from last year’s 210. Although there was a small drop in the number of Palestinian students accepted into bachelor degree programs, due to changes in requirements, the overall trend shows a growth of hundreds of percent in the last decade. These are still relatively small numbers compared to the total student body, and in comparison to the number of Palestinians from Jerusalem attending Palestinian academic institutions. But this is a relatively new phenomenon, an additional and dramatic stage in a growing affinity between Israeli and Palestinian societies. Many people believe this trend will eventually change the face of the university and transform Jerusalem, as well.

Traditionally, residents of East Jerusalem have gone – and still do – to universities in the West Bank and in Arab countries. Even today, most Palestinian students in Jerusalem study in Palestinian and Arab universities. But in the last decade there has been a growing trickle of Palestinians from Jerusalem attending Israeli academic institutions. Heading the list is the Azrieli College of Engineering, the David Yellin College of Education and Hadassah College. In recent years, Hebrew University, the flagship academic institution in Israel has also started accepting Palestinian students in large and growing numbers. Up to a decade ago there were no more than a few dozen Jerusalemite Palestinians – in contrast to Israeli Arabs from northern Israel – went to Hebrew U. Last year there were 586 students from East Jerusalem (other than the preparatory year). Eighteen were doing doctorates and 69 were doing other graduate degrees. The most popular degrees were in education, social work, communications, international relations and nursing. There were also some students in biology, electrical engineering, computer science and a few in medical school.

Many people familiar with the subject note that the construction of the separation barrier is a major reason that Palestinians living in Jerusalem have started seeking their future in Israeli institutions.

One could add the fact that regulatory changes have made it harder for people with degrees from Palestinian institutions to work in Israel. Another reason behind opting for Israeli higher education is the generous funding provided by the Council for Higher Education, which enables universities to offer stipends to nearly every Palestinian student who meets the requirements and wants to take the preparatory year.

“It’s a combination of factors: the fact that anyone needing a stipend can get one, and that 10 years have elapsed since the barrier was built, making it more difficult to study at Palestinian universities. The city is much more united today, the light rail system has also played a part,” says Michal Barak, who heads the department of cultural diversity at the university.

University studies is one of the many changes that are bringing Jerusalem’s Palestinian society closer to Israeli Jewish society. These include a rise in the demand for Israeli citizenship and in taking Israeli matriculation exams, as well as an increase in the number of Palestinians who work in West Jerusalem, and more.

Fuad Abu Hamed, who lives in the neighborhood of Sur Baher, was one of the first Palestinian students at the Hebrew University 10 years ago. He is now a businessman and lecturer in its school of business administration.

“Then we were only a few – if you heard of someone from Sur Baher at the university, it was unusual. Nowadays you see them. I can tell who they are by the way they dress and behave, and every passing year contributes to breaking the stigma. In recent years it’s been snowballing. It will take a few more years until there are graduates and doctors, and it will have a huge impact,” he says.

Abu Hamed points to other factors behind the change. “There’s no doubt that funding and attention paid by Israeli institutions were major factors. Once, if you had no money you couldn’t do it. Now any child, even if he or she are poor, can get in as long as their grades are good. But some things are connected to the Palestinian Authority and the economic situation. People realize they need good employment.

“Thousands of students who graduated from Palestinian universities are warning on Facebook not to make the mistake they made, saying they have no work. The social media must be heeded in this matter. People are busy with their daily lives, seeing that the peace process is stuck and that what one needs to do in order to settle down is to study and advance. Daily life is stronger than slogans.”

Palestinians in Jerusalem admit that in recent years, social taboos have weakened with regard to forging ties with Israeli society. Just as the taboo against filing for Israeli citizenship has weakened, so has the criticism against someone who chooses to study at an Israeli institution.

Rula Abu-Ziad from Beit Hanina began her studies at the Hebrew University in 2010. “I didn’t want to go to the West Bank even though all my girlfriends went there. I didn’t want to go abroad either. Many people told me I’d be wasting my time and money and that I’d fail,” she says. The beginning was indeed very difficult. “In the first term, the lecturer asked me to come see him during office hours. He told me he didn’t think I could pass the course and that I shouldn’t waste my father’s money. He suggested I try another option. I was 17 and a half and came out of the room crying.

“I sat in the forum, crying and unable to get up. After a week I went back to him and told him I’d decided to continue and that this was my right. In the end I received a grade of 91 in his course, higher than the class average. In those years I cried every time I studied for an exam.”

There were other difficulties, such as an armed student sitting next to her, telling the teacher why Palestinians must leave this land. “I felt foreign and alienated and that I had no place there. For the first two years I didn’t dare participate in class,” Abu-Ziad says.

The first obstacle noted by everyone is language. The level of Hebrew studies in most East Jerusalem high schools is very low, and students coming to an Israeli university face great hardships in that respect. The university’s rector Prof. Barak Medina sees a lack of familiarity with Israeli society among Palestinian students. He maintains that “they don’t know what a Haredi is, what left and right means, something you assume students usually know.” Medina said the school of education held a special summer course for Palestinian students to familiarize them more with Israeli culture.

Barak said the university organizes activities to help Palestinian students integrate on campus. “Naturally, students remain in their bubble, tending to cluster with people like themselves. This applies to religious and secular students as well. We try to foster interactions,” he said. “Last year we had two days of Palestinian culture, so that they could see themselves as part of this space.”

The truly important question is what the significance of this change is for Palestinians in Jerusalem and their ties with Israeli society. In a few years there will be a new Palestinian elite group in Jerusalem, the first since 1967, whose members will speak Hebrew and have a more intimate knowledge of Israeli society. There could be far-reaching implications such as the realistic possibility of attaining a peace agreement that could include having East Jerusalem administered by the Palestinian Authority.

Not all the Palestinian students see it that way.

“We all gain, but in the end Palestine and the peace process lose out,” says Abu Hamed. “Every day that passes makes a classical diplomatic solution more unlikely. It’s an Israelification process that we willingly adopt, but when you consider people and their problems, you realize that this won’t make the problem of East Jerusalem go away. Perhaps in the next stage people will grow closer to Israelis and these graduates will want to go live in Jewish neighborhoods such as Armon Hanatziv and French Hill. This will change Jerusalem,” he says.

The graduates may also change the fabric of Jerusalem’s society. The city’s Arab elite has consisted mainly of Israeli Arabs who have moved there and played key roles in connecting Palestinian society to the Israeli authorities. Thus, for example, most of the city’s lawyers, accountants, and school principals are Israeli Arabs.

“With all due respect to ourselves, it’s time for Jerusalemites to take the places we now occupy,” says Mona Khoury, an adviser to the university’s president on making higher education accessible to Arab society. “In law, accounting, social work, they should be the leaders, as in their entire health and education systems. In two years, there will be nine new graduating social workers from East Jerusalem. This has never happened before.”