A mind is a terrible thing to waste. That axiom, widely used in America decades ago to encourage minority enrollment in higher education, applies today to Israeli Arabs.

They currently account for only 12 percent of students pursuing undergraduate degrees in Israel.

Arabs comprise 20% of Israel’s population and 50% of them are under the age of 20. Israel must find ways to make higher education more accessible, to create opportunities for knowledgeable, skilled graduates to contribute to the country’s continuing economic growth and productivity.

Increasing the number of Arab university students is the core aim of an ambitious initiative to be launched March 6. Coordinated by Israel’s Council for Higher Education (CHE), the six-year plan dovetails with other government-sponsored programs to help the Arab community.

One such project is the Prime Minister’s Office campaign, introduced last summer, to encourage the hiring of qualified Arabs. For that to succeed, however, something has to be done about the deep-seated problems in the educational system that directly impacts Arab students.

“The future of Israel depends on tackling the Arab issue,” Tel Aviv University Professor Manuel Trajtenberg told me in between meetings during his recent whirlwind visit to New York. “It is so easy to pretend they are not there. We have to act now. It tests our set of values.”

Trajtenberg, who chairs the CHE planning and budgeting committee, came to engage US Jewish leadership in conversations on the challenges and necessity of improving access to higher education for Arab citizens.

The Inter-Agency Task Force on Israeli Arab Issues, the mainstream US Jewish group that hosted Trajtenberg, recently issued a report that is a mustread for anyone concerned about the status of Israel’s Arab citizens.

The disturbing numbers cry out for substantive action. Only 65% of Arab youngsters, compared to 92% of Jews, reach the 12th grade. Yes, more than one-third of the Arab minority does not complete high school. Then, only 23% of Arabs meet the rigorous admission standards for an Israeli university.

Among Jews it is 47%. About half of the Arab applicants are rejected.

CHE Jewish and Arab scholars spent two years probing the obstacles to academic achievement in Arab high schools and how to provide guidance on preparing for university, getting admitted, and graduating with a bachelors’ degree. The “comprehensive” plan they developed covers the period from high school through employment.

Though it has government endorsement and funding of NIS 300 million, or $81m., the difficult task of implementation now begins.

INTERESTINGLY, LANGUAGE is a major obstacle. Israeli Arabs learn four languages – literary Arabic, spoken Arabic, Hebrew and English. Trajtenberg points out that it is hard to find another country with that kind of multi-language requirement. Arabic takes precedence for them, at the expense of proficiency in Hebrew and a working knowledge of English.

Also to be examined is the Arab high school experience, and how well students are prepared for higher education.

The matriculation and university entrance exams, long topics of debate amid charges of anti-Arab discrimination, will be reviewed for possible revisions. The CHE found that 78% of Jewish and 60% of Arab high school students take matriculation exams, but only 55% of the Jews and 31% of the Arabs obtained the certificates.

While not all Israelis attend colleges or universities for a variety of reasons, Arabs clearly are lagging.

For many Arab students, acceptance in a university is the first time they are directly engaging the wider Israeli society on a daily basis. Some must adjust to relocating from their communities, to living and studying in an environment where they so clearly feel like a minority. Some youths contemplating higher education may face opposition from family members who themselves may not have attended university and favor work as well as marriage soon after high school.

But the overall burden is on the government, the universities, and the broader society to assist Arab citizens seeking to study at Israeli institutions.

The CHE envisions establishing programs to help Arab students adjust to university, to reduce the drop-out rate and ensure a growing number of graduates secure gainful employment.

However, for a university to get CHE funding it must agree to create a duplicate of its website in Arabic and to appoint a faculty member, at the level of dean, to oversee the acclimatization of Arab students. This aspect of the plan alone is daunting. Trajtenberg, in his measured pragmatism, is confident that universities will apply for funding and comply with the requirements. It’s the right thing to do.

Making campuses more amenable to Arab students will lead to their success, and over time encourage others to seek higher education opportunities.

Long term, the CHE aims to shift the current concentration of Arabs in the pharmaceuticals, nursing and teaching fields toward science disciplines and engineering, where enrollment is low.

In sum, this educational journey is enormously complicated and will surely take longer than six years to fully implement. How will Trajtenberg and his colleagues evaluate success? “We have to learn along the way how to make a difference,” says the undaunted professor. “Tempering expectations” is essential.

The writer is the American Jewish Committee’s director of media relations.

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