Wednesday, December 02, 2020

Racism in Israeli universities “escalating out-of-control”

By Felix Black - March 26, 2013
Section: [Main News] [Life under Occupation] [Features]
Tags: [Racism] [arrests] [raids] [Israeli universities] [Palestinian citizens of Israel] [students]

All photos taken by Areej Saeb

On March 6, three Palestinian students at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem were arrested after they demonstrated in support of Palestinian prisoners. 

They were arrested by Israeli police several minutes after the protest was over whilst chatting to fellow students on the street.

“We were protesting against Israel’s detainment of Palestinian prisoners and against police prosecution of Arab students,” said Majd Hamdan, one of the students who were arrested.

“At no point did the police say the protest was illegal…they did not tell us anything about the protest actually. But they still arrested us.”

The demonstration was also a partial response to the treatment of Khalil Gharra, also studying at Hebrew University, who was taken into police custody in the middle of the night on February 24 by four armed security personnel in civilian clothing. The men searched his room, traced his hard-drive, confiscated laptops and temporarily jailed him inside Jerusalem’s Russian Compound prison.

Majd was released the next day, after spending a night in Israeli prison, but Khalil Gharra went through a court hearing the morning after his arrest. According to +972 magazine, the pretext for his arrest was a Facebook status in which Gharra criticised Palestinians from his village who serve in the police. Despite confiscating his laptop, they found no evidence of this. They then agreed to release him if he paid NIS 5,000 ($1,500) of his own money. 

Despite refusing, he was sent home in the afternoon of the same day.  

Recently, discrimination against Palestinian students has gained much media attention, and reached a peak with the case of Imad Shaqqour.

We get accustomed to certain racist situations especially when it comes to political activities in college, but this incident is just outrageous, [as] we are being denied our native language

Shaqqour was denied advice from Haifa University’s Counselling Center because he spoke Arabic. The counsellor reportedly stated “I’m sorry, Arabic is not allowed in here, I hope this is fine with you, but this is how we do it here.”

“We get accustomed to certain racist situations especially when it comes to political activities in college, but this incident is just outrageous, [as] we are being denied our native language,” said Shaqqour in an interview with the Arabs48 website.


The Arab Culture Association runs a youth empowerment program that reports and exposes incidents of university discrimination, and documents them in an 'Academic Watch’ report. The most recent reports details over 60 cases in which Arab-Palestinian students have been actively discriminated against in the past year alone.

This indicates, of course, that each incident is not isolated. However media coverage has focused on direct assaults on Palestinian students and has given little attention to the day-to-day and long-standing racism in Israeli institutions.

Institutionalized racism: “I’m sorry, I just don’t like Arabs”

“Even if you speak Arabic too loudly or say something they don’t like, you will get a glaring look or somebody will mutter something towards you,” explains Basma, a student studying at Tel Aviv University.

Basma had recently organized a demonstration in support of Palestinian prisoners at the entrance to Tel Aviv University, which was met by a counter-demonstration of Israeli students and a bloc of police between the two sides. The event was entirely peaceful, with no arrests.

Despite the action, the climate of prejudice and alienation, especially towards use of the Arabic language, is generally shrugged off by many Arab students. This is simply because they cannot react to such entrenched forms of racism. 

Basma and Dr. Ran HaCohen, a professor at Tel Aviv University, discussed an interesting comparison between the treatment of Ethiopian-Jewish and Palestinian students.

They explain how the Dean of Students at theuniversity offers student services, like advice onstudies, help with dormitories and aids to career development with a special emphasis for prospective students from minority groups. Dr. HaCohen details how the Ethiopian-Jewish division is very helpful and empowering, with new students using it to form networks of assistance for each other.

However, Basma describes the Palestinian-Arab section of the Dean of Students as “an extension of the Deanship” and merely an institutional requirement that offers little help to Palestinian students.

In Haifa, the Dean was involved in the protests during the latest Gaza War. Palestinian student Maria Zahran was targeted by Israeli online counter-protestors, who shared her facebook profile and incited violence towards her in various messages. When she contacted the Dean to hold a Disciplinary Committee they offered little response and closed the case at the earliest opportunity.

Yet the Dean at Haifa, and at other Israeli universities, has repeatedly taken disciplinary action against Palestinian students without hesitation.

As if university-based discrimination is not enough, Palestinian students also have to adjust to a life in an environment away from Arab-majority populations. 

Haifa University gained a lot of media attention when it was found to be giving out its dormitories to students who had served in the military rather to those who deserved the places from a socio-economic basis. The dorms are relatively cheap, but as Palestinian citizens of Israel cannot serve in the military, they would be forced to look for the more expensive privately owned apartments.

Yet, and without de-valuating the above example, there is a wider struggle for Palestinian students searching for accommodation. Students at Tel Aviv University have to find accommodation in the city, rather than on the campus, as they enter their third year. 

As Basma explains, “In one occasion I call up a person letting out a flat, and she is interested until she asks my name. I call back a few days later, on my friend’s phone, and she says 'oh right, yes you, oh I’m sorry I just don’t like Arabs.’ This is what we have to go through. It is escalating out-of-control.”

Militarisation and control on subject majors

Students on study leave whilst part of the armed forces regularly carry their weapons around campus. 

The militaristic nature of Israeli universities is plainly evident and has been analyzed by many. The Middle East Department of Tel Aviv University has become notorious among Palestinian students for its racist dictum, and for its effective grooming of future Shabak (Israel’s security agency) members. 

The preference given to students who have served in the Israeli military have severely affected the choices Palestinian students have to study at university.

Those who choose to attend university and are enticed towards studying science-based subjects as Israeli universities offer humanities courses that Palestinian students do not readily identify with.

The majority of university courses do not accept anybody younger than 21 years of age. Yet high school in Israel finishes when the pupil reaches 18. This system is designed around the use of conscription into the army for the three years in between high school and university. As Palestinian students are not allowed to serve in the military, they have three years in which they must find employment before joining university. 

The reality is most Palestinians students with aspirations for studying rarely follow through with their plans. The pressures of living in a comparatively low socio-economic environment compel most prospective students to continue their employment without study. 

What’s more, those who do choose to attend university are enticed towards studying science-based subjects as Israeli universities offer humanities courses that Palestinian students do not readily identify with.

Yet even in science-based subjects there are doors closing for Palestinians, as they compete with Israeli society. The military is heavily involved with medical academia, allowing conscripts to delay their service whilst studying medicine, and ensuring grants and scholarships are readily available to future soldiers, with the desire that they become army medics. 

However, although the older age for studying medicine is explained under the pretense of needing more aware and mature students, the major is readily available for Israeli students by age 18, especially if they include training as an army medic as part of their future plans. As a result Palestinians students the same age who want to study the same field are not allowed to do so, and end up spending a year at home during which many of them decide that they do not want to pursue their studies at all.

Pharmacology is one of the increasingly rare subjects that allow high school graduates at age 18 to apply for study, and is not in competition with another strata of Israeli society whilst at the same time, it provides a good opportunity for employment afterwards.

For this reason, the pharmaceutical industry in Israel is dominated by Palestinian post-graduates. 

Yet there are rumours in the Jerusalem municipality that the age restriction on the study of pharmacology may be raised to 21 years of age quite soon.

“The message seems to be they would rather have a university without any Arabs at all,” says Mohammed Awadi, a Tel Aviv student leader.

The disturbing control over intellectual property by the Israeli state system is clearly visible through the eyes of Palestinians. 

With two conflicting moves, Israel is attempting to absorb and co-opt its Palestinian population into its ideological apparatus, whilst closing off the universities and thus opportunities for Palestinians, thereby removing any internal non-Jewish intellectual threat to the existence of the Zionist state.

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