Try as he might, Muhana Fares, the head of the Druse Education Department at the Ministry of Education, was unable to contain the grin of pride that radiated across his face on Thursday.

There was something contagious about it, as it was reflected in the faces of close to 300 other members of the Druse community who had come from the North to Jerusalem for the launch at the President’s Residence of the Technion Sparks (Nitzanei HaTechnion) program.

The project is the brainchild of the president’s military aide, Brig.-Gen. Hasson Hasson, and is conducted under the auspices of the Prime Minister’s Office, the Education Ministry, Haifa’s Technion- Israel Institute of Technology and Atidim, an organization that promotes education and encourages the pursuit of excellence. It currently enables 200 Druse high school students, who have obtained top grades at school and who have an orientation toward science and technology, to take special courses at the Technion where they are exposed to academia, and stretch the limits of their potential in any scientific or technological field.

Hasson is the first Druse to serve as a military aide to a president of the state, though his father-in-law Kamal Mansour has for more than four decades been the adviser on minorities to a series of presidents from Zalman Shazar to Shimon Peres.

At the mention of Hasson’s name, the crowd beamed and applauded.

Peres quipped that on military matters, Hasson is his subordinate, but on civilian matters he is Hasson’s subordinate, especially when it comes to education. “I’m a very good educational aide-de-camp,” he said.

Peres paid tribute to Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar who he said had succeeded in achieving the impossible. No one in Israel seriously believed that anything could be done to improve standards of education, said Peres, but Sa’ar had managed to persuade the OECD to get Israel to commit itself to upgrading its education, and the outcome has been remarkable.

Sa’ar said that there had been improvement across the board, but no sector of the population had improved to the same extent as Druse students, who appeared to be highly motivated. The project was directed not only at Druse, but at gifted students in all peripheral communities, said Sa’ar, adding that the intention was to keep broadening its scope. For instance in February, 160 seventh-graders will join the program.

Sheikh Muafek Tarif, the spiritual head of the Druse community, lauded both Peres and Sa’ar as being men of great vision, as well as everyone else connected with bringing the project to fruition and thereby opening new horizons for Druse students so that they can attain higher education and enter into professions in which they can make a worthwhile contribution to the state.

Within the Druse community, he said, there was consensus among religious and secular factions that education must be given the top priority.

He assured students that they would have the full-hearted backing of the community.

Toward this end, an annual NIS 500,000 scholarship fund has been established to enable those students whose families cannot afford higher education.

All that he asked of them in return was to maintain Druse traditions and values that primarily consist of helping the needy and bringing honor to the state.

There have been Druse graduates from the Technion in the past, but not in great numbers.

The Druse have made a tremendous contribution to national security said Sa’ar, “but only 13 percent of them have university degrees. We have to change this radically, and it can be done over a relatively short period.”

A Druse Technion alumni, Yarin Hadad, who has a bachelor’s degree in biology and is studying for a master’s degree in genetics, presented a brief paper on the unique genetics of the Druse as compared with any other ethnic group. The Druse marry only within the community, she said, and often marry blood relatives.

Samples taken from more than 300 people from 20 Druse villages indicated strong DNA similarities, she said, adding that the social, historical and demographic structure of the Druse was closely related to their religion.

Six of the outstanding Druse high school students – Yaara Abu Rokan, Saadi Kaid Ba, Issam Kis, Bashar Isami, Nasiv Ayd and Fadhi Badar – shared their impressions of the project and talked about what it has given them. Abu Rokan said that she had learned to understand herself better and to know what she wants to do in life. “As a result of the Technion experience, we can all affect change,” she said.

Kaid Ba saw the program as a great breakthrough for the community. Kis, the son of a Technion graduate in engineering, wants to be a pilot in the Israel Air Force and after that in civil aviation.

Isami wants to be an electrical engineer. Ayd has hopes of becoming an astrophysicist, and Badar wants to be engaged in scientific research.

Some of the youngsters have siblings who have also been aided by the Atidim program.

Peres was particularly pleased to welcome Tarif, saying that his presence demonstrated that there was no conflict between religion and science.

He was also pleased to see the large number of females in the program and suggested to parents of daughters to take note.

Like Sa’ar, Peres commended the Druse contribution to national security and said that they excel in everything they do. They have proved themselves as excellent soldiers and farmers he said, and he had no doubt that they would also prove to be excellent scientists.

Peres gently chided Fares for several references to the wisdom of Solomon, who is as much revered by the Druse as by the Jews, saying that the Druse had a much older point of reference in that Jethro, one of their key prophets, “started the first faculty for management, and his first student was Moses.”

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