After a decade-long struggle for official recognition, Israel's first comprehensive Arabic-language college of higher education will open its doors here in October.
The Nazareth Academic Institution will have some 120 students in its first year for a limited selection of courses in chemistry, communications, occupational therapy, and computer science.
From this small beginning, the founders hope it will blossom into the country's first Arab university, provide a peace-building bridge between Israelis and Palestinians, and stem the exodus of thousands of students who study abroad rather than contend with an Israeli system they say deters Arabs, who are one-fifth of the population. They also say it will greatly increase the opportunity for Arab residents, particularly women, to gain the qualifications necessary to join the work force, which would help the economy of the Galilee, where most Israeli Arabs live.
"We are going to create a viable institution that will provide a future for the young people in the Galilee. A multicultural academic center for peace, professional development, and the creation of a responsible, diverse leadership," said Susan Drinan, an American who is a General Electric executive and chairperson of the new college's Board of Trustees.
Critics of the plan say it will further marginalize the Arab minority in Israel; others fear it will become an intellectual hotbed of separatist Palestinian nationalism.
The debate has raged since 2000, when the Israeli government first decided in principle to open a college for Israeli Arabs in the Galilee.
The Mar Elias Educational Institutions, which operates an elementary school and a high school, immediately applied to the Israel Council for Higher Education for a license to operate the college. But the second Palestinian uprising erupted soon after, and the decision was shelved, apparently for political reasons.
Mar Elias, which was established in the Galilee town of Ibillin by the Greek Catholic Church, pursued the plan despite repeated rejections and delays. (In the interim period, it became a licensed branch campus of the University of Indianapolis, graduating more than 200 students, but the Israeli government ended all partnerships in which Israeli entities offer degrees from foreign institutions because of concerns about falling standards.)
In 2009 the Israeli government and the Council for Higher Education finally gave Mar Elias their approval to open a new college.
Ramiz Jaraisy, the mayor of Nazareth who has authorized a site for the new college, including a fully equipped library, says the decision is long overdue.
"It's a pity that until now, after more than 60 years since the establishment of the state of Israel, there is not even one academic institution among the Arab minority acting under the auspices of the Council for Higher Education. It should have been implemented a long time ago," said Mr. Jaraisy.
Israel's only other Arabic-language colleges are five segregated teacher-training institutions.
The delays in the project were due to political hand-wringing, he said. "I was involved at least twice in the process of a decision in the Council for Higher Education concerning the establishment of an academic institution among the Arabs in Nazareth, and twice that process was stopped because of political decisions of ministers."
When Israel celebrated the 62nd anniversary of its independence in May 2010, some 1.54 million Arab citizens accounted for 20.4 percent of the total population of 7.58 million. But in the academic year 2007-8, the latest figures available from the Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics, only 11.8 percent of undergraduate students in higher education in Israel were Arabs, falling to 6.6 percent of master's-level students, and just 3.5 percent of doctoral students.
During that period there were some 12,900 Arab students at Israeli colleges and universities and nearly 8,000 more at Arabic-language teacher-training colleges. But as many as 8,500 Arab students are reported to be studying abroad, most of them in Jordan.
"Arab students in Israel don't have an option for higher education in Arabic," said Yousef T. Jabareen, a law lecturer at the University of Haifa and director of Dirasat, the Arab Center for Law and Policy, in Nazareth. "Israel has established so far seven universities that have public funding. However, none of them is in Arabic. Israel does not have an option for higher education in Arabic for about 20 percent of its population."
For Arab students, "I see it as a violation of their right to equality, especially their right to education and their right to preserve their language and their cultural identity," he said.
Mr. Jabareen supports the development of the new college. "We need it to be a good, well-supported Arab university. I believe it could solve many of these problems," he said.
But even after the Council for Higher Education decision, the college may not survive because the accreditation was not accompanied by any of the financial support it had requested from the government.
"There are six colleges in Galilee, five of them are fully funded, all of them in Jewish areas. This is the only one in the Arab sector and the only one that is not funded," said Raed Mualem, senior vice president of the Mar Elias institutions who has pushed the project for the past 10 years. He said the trustees were trying to raise the $2-million necessary to begin operating in the fall, with a strategic plan that requires $150-million over the coming decade.
Steven G. Stav, who served until recently as director general of the Council for Higher Education, said he supported the project despite entrenched opposition to an Arab-oriented college and misgivings among council members about the quality of the teaching.
"We think it is very important for the Galilee that this college starts out and will be a positive donor and contributor to the area," said Mr. Stav.
"There was a question about this college because we do not promote sectorial colleges; we want to have integrated colleges," he said. "We have minorities that need some sort of self-definition in their teaching, but then you run into other difficulties."
Those "other difficulties" are apparently fears that an Arab college would become a hotbed of radicalism.
But Mr. Mualem and his colleagues say the opposite is true.
"Our teaching staff is one third Christian, one third Jewish, one third Muslim," said Mr. Mualem. "I don't think any of the people we have on staff want to build an institution dedicated to the worldview of terrorists. We are exactly the opposite. One third of the students' program is compulsory peace studies. No matter what they are studying, the first thing they will study is peace, how to live in a multicultural society."
"We can be the bridge between Israel and the Arab world," he continued. "It is in our interest to develop our Israeli identity, but not to forget where we came from."
Arab students agree that the new college would be valuable.
Amani Odeh, a 22-year-old college graduate, said Arab high-school students have a hard time getting into Israeli universities and prefer to go abroad. She earned a degree in chemistry and environmental sciences from Mar Elias and the University of Indianapolis before that arrangement ended.
"Arab students leave for Jordan and other countries abroad to study for medicine, for example, because they can't get the grades," she said. "My cousin went to Italy to study medicine. My neighbor also went to study in Italy. Most of my friends who I finished high school with went to Jordan and other places."
But some Arab academics remain dubious. Fadia Nasser-Abu Alhija, associate professor at Tel Aviv University School of Education, said the existence of the five segregated Arabic-language teacher-training colleges has caused "difficulties" and "deep gaps" between the Jewish and Arab high-school systems.
"I am skeptical about running an Arab university because I am very anxious about the level and the standards of the kind of people who will run this institute," she said. "To maintain the level, I think we have to have equal education."