The recent wave of violence between Arabs and Jews in Israel, representing a spillover effect from May’s 11-day war between Israel and the Gaza Strip-ruling group Hamas, casts a pall over prospects for peace and coexistence in the seemingly endless Arab-Israeli conflict. Yet one university in northern Israel is providing a ray of hope.
On the night of the May 20 ceasefire that brought the war to a close in Israel and Gaza, the University of Haifa hosted a roundtable discussion on Zoom in which more than 120 Jews and Arabs of various backgrounds discussed the recent tensions and possible paths toward restoring harmony. Participants included students, faculty, administrative staff, and members of the general public.
Rather than a one-off event, the discussion was indicative of the broader campus culture at University of Haifa, where Arabs make up over 30 percent of the student body — significantly exceeding the 20-percent Arab share of Israel’s total population.
The discussion was hosted by the university’s Jewish-Arab Community Leadership Program, which fosters multicultural encounters among students to create leadership groups within the university and their local community. Students who are active in the program work to bring about improvement in the social and educational conditions of the mixed Jewish-Arab population in the city of Haifa through joint community projects, while developing and raising social community initiatives among the Jewish and Arab student populations on campus.
Ali Sha’er, an Arab undergraduate student who is studying information systems at University of Haifa, said the May 20 roundtable “created hope in my heart.”
“I saw Jewish and Arab people with a strong will to come together and explain what they’re going through, with the aim and hope that it will strengthen empathy between Arabs and Jews,” he said. “I was happy that people listened to me and even more that by the end of the discussion there was an aspiration for coexistence from us all, and a better understanding of the other side.”
The roundtable was an opportunity to share “different ways to deal with hostility,” said Naama Golan, a Jewish graduate student studying art therapy.
“It helped me to listen to others’ experiences of fear, and one of the participants suggested it may relate to the media’s emphasis on violent events. The dialogue helped me to calm down, to cope and to leave the house. The encounter was important and meaningful,” echoed Marwa Amarya, an Arab undergraduate student at the university’s Department of Multidisciplinary Studies, adding that the event gave her a chance to “share my feelings and worries of going outside with an Islamic head cover.”
Given the proportions of Jews and Arabs within its student body, University of Haifa hosts such events as part of the institution’s concerted effort to bring together diverse populations. In fact, the university is planning in-person roundtable discussions in the coming weeks to follow up on the Zoom event amid the journey of building collaboration between Jews, Arabs, and all communities in Israel.
“As a multicultural community, we wanted to offer a safe space for Jews and Arabs to talk about the difficult issues surrounding the conflict,” said Prof. Jenny Kurman, University of Haifa’s Dean of Students. “From Orthodox Jews, to Ethiopians, Druze and Arabs, participants talked about their frustrations and worries, but also of hope for better times ahead. Importantly, they were able to see and understand perspectives from one another, even during these tense times.”
In tense and calmer times alike, the Jewish-Arab Community Leadership Program works to leverage the potential of the university’s unique demographic makeup as a fertile ground for dialogue.
“Many people in Israel, before university, don’t have an opportunity to meet the other,” explained Hila Cohen Lang, a Jewish instructor in the program. “Let’s say you’re Jewish and you go to a shop, and the owner of the shop is Arab. That’s not a real meeting. You don’t share ideas. You don’t talk about subjects that are sensitive. In the program, we’re trying to seize the opportunity for dialogue that comes through colleges and universities.”
For instance, a previous public dialogue hosted by the program brought two together two strictly observant religious students, a Jewish man and Arab woman. As a result of the dialogue, the Jewish man said he learned how to “watch things in two colors, not just in my color,” recalled Nisreen Morqus, an Arab instructor in the program.
When Arab student Ahmad Omar, who participated in the university’s start-up incubator geared toward social innovation and impact entrepreneurship, was considering dropping out of that initiative due to personal difficulties, he recounted that Jewish students “were there for me, with lots of understanding and support, convincing me to stay.”
Following the May 20 roundtable, both Arab and Jewish students stressed the importance of organizing additional forums for promoting coexistence and mutual understanding.
“I believe there is an indented political direction to keep the conflict alive by creating two opposing sides,” Golan said. “The encounter was important and I look forward to more, as the only way to solve the problem is to create conversation, to know each other’s narratives deeply, and to create joined radical activism of Jews and Arabs, secular and orthodox, men and women, etc.”
Since the roundtable “highlighted that each other’s point of view is shrouded in misconception,” said Sha’er, “more encounters like this one are needed to spread comradery and hope.”
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