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Traveling home on Monday afternoon from the College of Judea and Samaria, nineteen-year-old Majdi Karaki explained why he decided to commute a total of four hours a day, four times a week, from his home in the Ras El-Amud neighborhood of east Jerusalem to Ariel, where he enrolled this week in a special pre-college program for Arab students.
"Sure, some of my friends criticized me for my choice of school," Karaki told The Jerusalem Post. "They asked me why I was going to study in the same college with Jewish settlers, but I just don't care about what they say."
This week, Karaki joined 30 other students from east Jerusalem and from towns in the Triangle region, such as Kalansuwa and Kafr Kasim, in a new pre-college program specifically designed for Arab students who do not meet academic college admissions standards. While approximately half these students hold Israeli matriculation diplomas, many of the students, including Karaki, graduated from high school after having fulfilled the requirements for the Jordanian matriculation exams.
The one-year program, which is financed by a new grant from the Council for Higher Education, offers math, English, Hebrew, computer and learning skills classes. Students who do well in the pre-college program according to criteria established by the college will be able to enroll in B.A. programs without taking the psychometric exam that is required of all potential university students in Israel.
Following the government's decision to initiate a process for granting the College of Judea and Samaria the status of a university earlier this year, the college came under harsh criticism from individuals and groups of left-wing Israeli academics and political activists, who protested against granting university status to an institution they considered to be located on "a settlement in occupied land."
Like others among the 300 Arab students currently enrolled in the college itself, however, Karaki said that a good, government-subsidized education, rather than politics, were his personal consideration when he decided to enroll.
"A friend of mine studies here, and I think this is one of the best colleges in Israel," Karaki said.
"Arab students that come to study here are fulfilling a dream," said Rifat Sweidan, who received a Masters in social work from Bar-Ilan University and is now the College of Judea and Samaria's academic advisor for Arab students. "Admissions are not easy anywhere for Arab students, and they go to study wherever they are accepted - it's much more convenient than going to study abroad, as do the thousands of Israeli-Arabs currently studying in Jordan."
According to Sweidan, close to half of the Arab students enrolled at the college reside in college dorms.
A total of 8,500 students are currently enrolled at the college.
According to Yigal Cohen-Orgad, the chairman of the college's executive committee, the college considers its new pre-college program for Arab students to be "part of our role and responsibility for enlarging the base of higher education in Israel, and to promote co-existence between the Jewish and Arab sectors."
Cohen-Orgad also said that the college did not require its Arab students to hold Israeli citizenship. "The college's charter says that it welcomes anyone whose deed or behavior does not counter the principles of Israel's declaration of independence," Cohen-Orgad said.
"The past four years have been very difficult ones," he added. "But they passed without tensions between Arabs and Jews, and with an Israeli flag in every class and every lab." Indeed, according to Sweidan, no Arab students have complained "of feeling racism or prejudice."
"Our political approach is that the settlements in Samaria are part of the strategic needs of the State of Israel, and any Arab student that want to live with us in peace will get the same opportunities here that any other student gets," Cohen-Orgad said.
Next week, Dr. Nitza Davidovitch, director of academic development at the College of Judea and Samaria, will publish a report concerning a recent study she conducted with two colleagues, Professor Dan Soen of the College of Judea and Samaria and Dr. Michal Kolan of the Western Galilee College.
The study, Davidovitch said, compared Arab and Jewish students studying at the two colleges in terms of their religious beliefs, their family background, their personal and academic background, and the degree of well-being they felt on campus.
"We wanted to examine what happens on academic campuses, which are essentially the first place where young Jews and Arabs meet," Davidovitch said.
"In both cases," she said, "we found out that the encounter between Arab and Jewish students was very peaceful, and we wanted to try and understand why." Davidovitch said that one of her conclusions was that the lack of political activism among students on campus was part of the reason.
"The Arab students reported that they feel very good on campus," she said. "Nevertheless, our conclusion was that there is much work to be done in terms of social integration between Arab and Jewish students."
The real issue, Davidovitch said, is how the Arab college graduate will fare professionally after graduation. "That is another area where there is still much to be done," she said, referring to the integration of Arab students into the Israeli job market.
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Lourdes de Oliveira, Portugal
: This IS one of the best moves on the side of Israel, which has been showing good will in patching up the differences in the Middle East endless troubles. I think that A LOT more needs to be done. BUT so far, in my view, Israel is a big winner. Now, I'm waiting to see Palestinians having a more positive approach, and it won't mean they're losing, becoming weak. On the contrary. So? Arabs need to rid themselves of all that negative feeling. This is a planet for everyone!
Shifra Blass, Israel
: I think Ariel College has demonstrated that when an academic institution acts in a disinterested, non-political way for the benefit of society and academia, it justifies its own existence. I hope its critics take note and appreciate. Thank you, Talya Halkin, for bringing us this welcome piece of information.