Israeli Universities Experience New Degree of Jewish-Arab Tensions

Israeli campuses reflect the world outside them; can cooperative projects contribute to mutual understanding?

Rival demonstrations at Ben-Gurion University of the Desert, Be'er Sheva, on Nakba Day earlier this month.
Rival demonstrations at Ben-Gurion University of the Desert, Be'er Sheva, on Nakba Day earlier this month.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

A day after attending a stormy Nakba Day demonstration near Tel Aviv University earlier this month, Aline Nasra noticed unusual activity on her Instagram page.

“Suddenly, dozens of responses with Israeli flags started showing up,” said Nasra, a freshman on the university’s accounting program who is also an activist in the left-wing Hadash party’s student group there.

The responses referred to a picture she had posted from a May Day (aka International Workers’ Day) march.

The Israeli flags were accompanied by harsh comments: “She makes me sick.” “Get out of our country!” “Whore!” “You’re ugly!” Another commenter posted a picture of Nasra at the demonstration, termed her a “sexual deviant” and urged people to go to Tel Aviv University and chant in support of opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu.

Most of the commenters don’t know Nasra. They apparently found out about her because pictures of the demonstration were posted on social media along with her name and Instagram account.

She was able to identify one commenter, a fellow student, who wrote that she “disgusts him,” but he subsequently erased the comment. “We learn in the same classroom, we even spoke not long ago,” she says. But she hasn’t encountered him on campus over the last few days.

“Every Arab who lives here and spends time in Israeli spaces feels tense; I’m used to that,” Nasra explains. “But this time, I felt that the attacks were aimed at me personally. My account has pictures of my relatives and friends; maybe they’ll get to them too?”

After she explained what had happened on her Facebook page, an Arabic-speaking teaching assistant contacted her to ask for details, and the department she studies in urged her to report any other such incidents. “They demonstrated understanding and supported me,” she says.

The picture of another student who took part in the demonstration and was barred from campus for 15 days on police orders was disseminated by the university’s chapter of the Im Tirtzu organization, along with his name and the claim that he had used violence against right-wing demonstrators.

“Rami thinks he can punch Jews because they’re waving Israeli flags,” the group said on its Facebook page. “Rami was wrong. Get out of the university.”

In response to Haaretz’s questions, Im Tirtzu said it decided to publish the picture because “students on campus ought to know that a violent person is sitting beside them.”

Tel Aviv University President Prof. Ariel Porat wrote to all students last weekend that he had recently been contacted by several students “who are afraid to come to campus or the student dorms.” Such fears were expressed by both Jews and Arabs, he said.

At a meeting of the student parliament, Orit Eliyahu, coordinator of the university’s Im Tirtzu chapter, complained that “on Memorial Day, the Arab students laughed at us when we stood for the siren. Arab students tell us they want to murder us, and the next day they sit next to us in the lecture hall. We’re trembling with fear.”

Pro-Palestinian students at the Nakba Day event at Ben-Gurion University of the Desert, Be'er Sheva, earlier this month.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

Nasra, who also attended the meeting, responded that Arab students are also afraid to come to the dorms. “There were activists near our dorms and calls of ‘Death to Arabs,’” she said.

In another incident, a student made crude remarks about Muslims in a WhatsApp group for law students. The university says it has launched disciplinary proceedings in the case.

In addition, a large Facebook group to which some Tel Aviv University students belong has hosted stormy political discussions in recent weeks, with some harsh comments. “I’ve studied at the university for six years and never felt the kind of pressure, tension and hatred that there is now,” one wrote.

“The mood on campus is difficult,” says Prof. Neta Ziv, the university’s commissioner of equality and diversity. She thinks the trouble is due to a series of events that occurred outside the classroom – including the recent wave of deadly terror attacks, which haven’t spared Tel Aviv, and the killing of Palestinian journalist Shireen Abu Akleh – in close proximity to Independence Day and Nakba Day.

Regarding the animosity on social media, Ziv says “this is the equivalent of the campus hallways, and we have to address what’s happening there.”

She believes that staging encounters between the groups in calm times would improve the atmosphere on campus when the next storm erupts. “There will always be times of tension, and we can’t always predict them,” she says. “The more we invest in building our infrastructure during times of peace and quiet, the better we’ll get through them. It’s impossible to put your head in the sand and say, ‘This will pass.’”

A protester wearing a "Zionist" T-shirt at the Be'er Sheva campus event.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

‘Shared space’

Tel Aviv University isn’t the only one to experience growing tensions over the past month. At Bar-Ilan University, Ramat Gan, the Im Tirtzu chapter posted screenshots from the private Instagram account of a student who condemned the Israel Defense Forces’ operations in Jenin and dubbed the Palestinians killed in shoot-outs “martyrs.”

Im Tirtzu activists also sent letters to university officials demanding that the student be expelled on the grounds that she is “lauding and praising the murder of innocents.” For now, the student has decided not to return to campus and is attending classes on Zoom.

The university said the issue is being handled by the dean of students, Prof. Nira Mashal, “who has summoned the student for an explanatory conversation. We are committed to the safety and welfare of all our students and are working to make calm, fruitful academic study possible.”

Over the past decade, the number of Arabs attending Israeli colleges and universities has surged, and they now constitute 17 percent of the student body (slightly below their proportion in the general population). This surge has changed colleges and universities, and has consequently created more opportunities for friction between Jews and Arabs.

“Today, the campus is a shared space,” says Ron Gerlitz, executive director of Hebrew University’s aChord Center – a nonprofit whose goal is to increase tolerance in Israel. “You have to manage these spaces in a much more intelligent way. Either they turn into a battlefield between Jews and Arabs, or there are places for positive encounters.”

The tension is exacerbated during a period of weeks every spring that includes Memorial Day, Independence Day and Nakba Day. This year, it also coincided with the one-year anniversary of last May’s flare-up between Israel and militant groups in Gaza.

“The campus isn’t on fire all the time but only for brief periods,” notes Dr. Sarit Larry, who heads aChord’s project for diversity and inclusion in academia. “What’s more interesting is the norm. If we develop interaction and joint work between the groups on a regular basis, the periods of escalation will look different. The conclusion from May ought to be what we do in September.”

This understanding is already seeping into colleges and universities, she says, and they are working in various ways to improve the situation. But the change is gradual – and isn’t always enough.

Israeli police officers detaining a demonstrator at the Nakba Day event at Tel Aviv University earlier this month.Credit: Hadash Students

Is the tension on campus really more pronounced this year, beyond specific events and protests? “There is tension, and in some ways it’s a higher intensity than in the past,” says Prof. Guy Harpaz, the dean of students at the Hebrew University. “It’s hard to generalize when you’re talking about 25,000 students, but there are some who feel an erosion in their personal sense of security. There has been an increase in the frequency of the incidents and in their intensity. This can’t be ignored.”

As dean, Harpaz receives frequent reports of concerns about the political tensions on the Mount Scopus campus. Many of these come from Jews – “not just from political activists, but also from people who are personally concerned, who want to feel greater security on and around the campus. There are murmurings.”

The timing is no coincidence: over the last few years, hundreds of Palestinians from East Jerusalem have become part of the student population. The diversity is great, but it also generates friction,” Harpaz observes.

“When I was a student at the Hebrew University 27 years ago, there was tension on campus too,” says Prof. Mona Khoury-Kassabri, who has held the position of vice president for strategy and diversity since the start of the current academic year. “Is there more tension now? I’m not sure. The students mainly get stirred up in connection with specific events on the calendar.”

However, she acknowledges that the events of May 2021 were unusual within Hebrew University too. “I must admit that the events caught us unprepared,” she says. After that, the university began offering workshops for lecturers designed to help them deal with volatile statements in the classroom.

Prior to that, but with greater urgency following those events, the university also began working on programs intended to promote dialogue between the different groups on campus. The idea was to try to overcome the barriers that often prevent such encounters taking place.

A large-scale survey among 5,000 Jewish and Arab students by the aChord Center two years ago examined how motivated members of the different groups were to work together and get to know one another. The findings indicated that studying together did not increase the motivation to form social ties between Jews and Arabs, and that without outside intervention the groups remained isolated from one another.

Another finding was that various kinds of leadership and dialogue groups had little positive effect on students’ motivation to work together: perhaps because they are already “preaching to the choir” or because they are only relevant to a small minority of students.

According to the study, the most effective way to increase cooperation between Jewish and Arab students is through joint work as part of their academic courses. As a result of this finding, the Hebrew University now has 14 courses in which students from diverse groups must work together on course assignments. Next year, 40 more such courses will be added.

Harpaz points out that the university is not actually an “ivory tower” that is totally detached from the surrounding reality. “Whereas in the past we may have thought that we could create an enlightened bubble of students who come to acquire an education and, contrary to everything going on around them, all live in peace and quiet, now we understand that it doesn’t work this way.”

Still, he says that despite the protests, inflammatory rhetoric and uneasy feeling of some students, “ultimately there are no genuinely violent incidents on campus. All in all, as of right now we permit protests, and so on, and it basically works okay. Meanwhile, there is a huge and growing amount of intercultural activity. But it is much quieter, and the vocal and militant minority grabs the headlines.”

Rival groups waving Israeli and Palestinian flags at Ben-Gurion University earlier this month.Credit: Eliyahu Hershkovitz

‘Historic’ protest

The case of the recent demonstration commemorating the Nakba that was held at Ben-Gurion University of the Desert, Be’er Sheva, shows that violent friction can often be avoided. Last year, the demonstrations devolved into very violent clashes, so this year a decision was made to hold the rally within the campus, in an attempt to prevent far-left and far-right elements from joining. Dozens of activists from Im Tirtzu held a counterdemonstration, with the groups divided by barricades and security personnel.

The demonstration, in which Palestinian flags were waved, drew condemnations from politicians but no serious incidents occurred on campus. “It all went smoothly,” says Hadil, a student at the university who preferred not to give her full name. “For us, it was an achievement because we were able to express our identity without fear. That’s historic, as far as I’m concerned.”

The university administration made efforts to prepare for the demonstration. The organizers of both demonstrations were summoned to a meeting with the dean of students, who reviewed the rules of conduct with them. The rules were followed and campus life returned to normal as soon as the event was over. “This achievement got swallowed up amid all the emotional tumult, and I’m sorry about that,” university president Prof. Daniel Chamovitz wrote to the student body. “Two groups that are separated by a huge abyss managed to demonstrate alongside one another in a way that prevented violence.”

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