Higher education is a conventional means for ethnic minorities to integrate themselves into a heterogeneous society. For Arab citizens of Israel, entering Israeli universities unfortunately often comes with barriers, culture shock, and social exclusion. Just as I discussed the ethical and practical rationales for integrating Israel’s Arab citizens into the private sector, the same pro-Israel and pro-peace argument can be made for assisting Arab students in Israeli universities. If you consider models in the USA and even Israel, the best way to go about this is by establishing more mentorship programs for Israel’s outstanding Arab students.
Israel will not be able to prosper to its fullest potential without the integration of its Arab citizens. Arabs are only contributing eight percent of Israel’s economy, and the Israel Democracy Institute (IDI) estimates that this inefficiency costs Israel up to 31 billion shekels per year. The demand for jobs in Israel’s high-tech market is also far greater than the current supply of candidates. As director of IT Works Ifat Baron states, “There are 5,000 new job openings in the hi-tech industry every month, and the demand is far greater than the supply of promising candidates.”
Israel’s Arab citizens could be the key to filling in this hole, which can only be facilitated by helping them develop the required technical and professional skills through enrollment in Israeli universities. According to a report from the Israeli NGO Sikkuy, Arabs make up less than ten percent of Israelis with Bachelor’s degrees, and even less so with Master’s (6.4%) and PhD’s (3.8%) degrees. The causes of Arab underrepresentation in higher education range vary: Arab students receive less benefits and age restrictions from not being enlisted in the military, Hebrew is becoming more prominent for matriculation and inadequate high school educations have led to less preparedness for placement exams. In 2010, the Israeli government launched the Six-Year Plan to Enhance Accessibility of Higher Education for the Minority Population, which aims to counter such disadvantages. Since its implementation, we have seen an increase in Arab enrollment in Israeli universities since.
However, we have also witnessed more and more Israeli Arabs choosing to study at universities abroad in nearby Jordan. In the academic year of 2006-2007, there were up to 5,400 Israeli Arabs studying in Jordanian universities. In 2012, it was closer to 10,000 students. This stark increase relates to the issue of separation in Israel’s education system. Most Israeli Jewish and Arab students have never met each other before entering college, resulting in a culture shock upon entering the universities. When I studied for a semester at the University of Haifa – a symbol of Jewish-Arab coexistence – I still felt that many Jewish and Arab students stayed in their own bubbles. Arab students who do enroll also struggle to succeed and fit in due to linguistic and cultural barriers. As the American Jewish organization Inter Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues notes, “Most (Israeli) Arab students [in Jordan] would rather study in Israeli institutions, but existing barriers—especially…difficulties adjusting to Israeli institutions—make the Jordanian option more appealing.”
Nonetheless, this is where mentorship programs have proven to be helpful. As the Technion model reveals, services and mentorship programs have helped more Arabs enroll in Israeli universities and succeed rather than dropout. As Mohammad Darawshe concisely states, “If you apply solutions, you will get results.” In 2004, the University of Technion launched two programs for Arab students: a foundation year to introduce them to the university and a mentorship-pairing program between upper-class Jewish students and younger Arab students, in efforts to assist with Hebrew and immersion. Ten years later, Arabs enrollment increased from three percent of the student body at Technion to over twenty percent. Additionally, in 2006, the Technion established its “Outstanding Arab Students” program to assist those who were struggling to stay enrolled in the university. Eight years later, the Arab dropout rate dropped from seventy-three percent to twelve. As we can see, when Israeli universities offer mentorship programs, the positive results follow.
Such programs are not unique in the higher education world. In the US, more and more universities are establishing programs to help underrepresented and disadvantaged minorities. For instance, Northeastern University recently established a new mentorship initiative to assist underrepresented minority students studying energy at the institution. These models can help more of Israel’s Arab citizens enter higher education and successfully develop the skills needed to fill in the holes in Israel’s economy. Mentorship programs can also be an opportunity for improving Jewish-Arab relations among younger generations. Further integrating Israel’s Arab citizens into higher education will go in hand with integrating them into Israel’s private sector and can contribute to Israel’s economy, social cohesion and more peaceful relations between Israelis, Palestinians and the neighboring Arab states.