Tel Aviv University Refusing to Allocate Prayer Room on Main Campus, Muslim Students Say

Students say permanent prayer room outside month of Ramadan is about 15-minute walk in each direction, meaning they need to set aside 45 minutes each time they wish to pray

The Sackler Faculty of Medicine building at Tel Aviv University
Tomer Appelbaum

Tel Aviv University is refusing to allocate a specific room for Muslim prayer on its main campus and is instead directing students to university dorms beyond the campus gates, according to students and correspondence with the university administration that was obtained by Haaretz.

During the current Muslim holy month of Ramadan, the university has set aside two prayer rooms on the main campus itself, one on the southern portion of campus and a small room on the northern end in the medical school building.

University officials noted specifically that the two prayer rooms are temporary and will be used for other purposes when Ramadan ends.

To really understand Israel and the Palestinians - subscribe to Haaretz

They also noted the availability of the permanent prayer room in the Einstein dorms, but Muslim students have complained that the dorm is about a 15-minute walk in each direction, meaning that they need to devote 45 minutes each time they wish to pray.

In recent months, students have opted instead to pray outdoors on the main campus, including some days on which it rained. 

It has been set policy on the university’s part to provide Muslim prayer space on the main campus only during Ramadan. The special facilities for Ramadan were opened in 2017 after nearly two years of deliberations between the students and the administration.

Last year, an on-campus prayer room used for Ramadan was left at the disposal of the Muslim students for several months after the holy month, but according to a Muslim dental student, Mohammed Halaila, it was closed in January without notice or providing an alternative space on campus.

“We came for midday prayer and discovered that the room had been closed with an iron door with a lock,“ he said. “There were korans, women’s prayer garments and prayer rugs behind the locked door.” 

>> 'The formation of an educated class must be averted': How Israel marginalized Arabs from the start

For their part, however, university officials said the students had been told that use of the site as a prayer room would be temporary and that it would be closed once renovation work began there. The construction work in the area was recently completed and the prayer room was converted into a work space. 

“There is nothing unique about Ramadan. We pray five times a day all year long,” Halaila said. “It’s true that during Ramadan, people fast and tend to be closer to religion, but, on the other hand, during this period, fewer students come to the university because it’s not easy to fast for 16 hours and also come to school.”

He added: “Actually exam time is more critical, because then we are at the university for extended periods.”

According to Halaila, one of the two Ramadan prayer rooms, the one at the medical school, is small and can only accommodate about 10 people, and therefore it is not possible to observe the customary Muslim separation of men and women in the prayer room.

“We are not insistent on small things like that,” he said, but are seeking a permanent space on campus. “We will solicit contributions ourselves for equipment and everything else.”

>> Number of Arab teachers in Jewish schools on the rise

According to the Council for Higher Education, there are about 3,000 Arab students at Tel Aviv University (although not all Arab students are Muslim). According to Halaila, hundreds of students use the university prayer rooms.

For her part, Knesset member Yael German (Kahol Lavan), who contacted the university to ask that the students’ demands be addressed, told Haaretz: “It’s unacceptable that Muslim students at Tel Aviv University don’t have a respectable and proper permanent prayer facility within the campus. I hope that the [university] senate considers the issue and makes available what should be taken for granted, a permanent respectable facility in a central location.”

On Wednesday, 28 Knesset members from the Labor Party, Meretz, Kahol Lavan, Hadash-Ta’al and Balad-United Arab List sent a letter to the university administration demanding such a facility. The lack of such a facility requires that many students walk more than 15 minutes in each direction to pray several times a day, the letter noted.