Hebrew University in Arabic

Unemployment among Arab graduates twice as high as in Jewish population.

arab students HU 224.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
arab students HU 224.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
It's easy to spot the Arab students in the Forum, a favored student gathering place at the Hebrew University Mount Scopus campus. They tend to sit, eat and laugh together, and don't really mingle with the rest of the student body. "The university experience for Arab students is entirely different [from that of Jewish Israeli students]," explains Ali Bahar, head of the Arab Student Union at Hebrew University. "It starts with the age gap. We don't serve in the army, so we enroll in the university very young, right after high school." In addition to the gap in life experience, many Arab students struggle to bridge the language gap as Hebrew is often their third language, after Arabic and English. For others it's the different mentality and the cultural gap that are tough to handle, explains Muhammad, a biology student at Hebrew University whose family lives in Nazareth. "It's not easy to come from a remote village in the Galilee to the vibrant campus and the big city to live in a rented flat or in dorms, and not with your family and all your siblings," he explains. But despite the various challenges confronting Arab Israeli students during the course of their university studies, perhaps none is as great as that which awaits them after they graduate: securing employment in their respective fields. Each year 20,000 students from across the country and as far away as Korea and Japan spend their days between Hebrew University's walls, the fruits of their labor culminating in a diploma - or what they hope will be the key to a successful future, a good job and a nice lifestyle. But how useful is a Hebrew University diploma if your name is Yasser, Abdallah or Laila, and your place of residence is Umm el-Fahm, Daliat al-Carmel, east Jerusalem or even Ramallah? There are 2,000 Arab Israeli students presently enrolled at the Hebrew University, and they are more concerned about the day after graduation than tuition fees and lecturers' strikes. "Today, at the Hebrew University we constitute 10 percent of the student population, yet look at the figures provided by the Central Bureau of Statistics - there are barely any Arab CEOs, hi-tech employees, etc.," says Bahar. Indeed data provided by Sikkui, a non-profit organization that tracks issues of Arab-Jewish equality, shows that the percentage of Arab university graduates working in finance and hi-tech in Israel is scarce. "There are some projects nowadays in Nazareth and Sakhnin, yet in most areas populated by Arabs there are no such projects and no development," says Yasser Awad of Sikkui. "It's nearly impossible to find an adequate job in these areas no matter how brilliant you are." According to the Central Bureau of Statistics, the unemployment rate of Arab university graduates is twice as high as that of their Jewish counterparts. When it comes to women, the situation is even worse. Although the CBS figure is far lower, a Sikkui study that took into account those who were not registered with the National Employment Service found that almost 42% of Arab women who hold a university degree cannot find employment at all. Hala, a Hebrew University graduate who lives in the North, says that for a short while after graduation she was optimistic and confident that she would secure professional employment with her BA in sociology and English. After two years of searching she gave up. "I'm married with two kids now, and I know that with each year my chances of finding the right job diminish as I lose my skills and knowledge. There are just a few organizations that offer employment opportunities in my area and all the positions are occupied," she explains. "Many of my girlfriends who were fighting with their families to go and get educated are also sitting at home unemployed now. Our relatives ask sometimes: Why did you go through all this hardship - going to Jerusalem, paying a lot of money, studying hard - only to hang your diploma on the wall? I don't have any thing to say to them." AWAD, WHO holds an MA in economics from Hebrew University, is afraid that if this trend continues and eventually there is no correlation between an Arab Israeli's level of education, work opportunities and lifestyle, they will be discouraged from enrolling in a university. "Many of those who choose to come back home after three to four years at Hebrew University or other universities discover that they can only find employment in the service industry or education field, yet they cannot fulfill their dream and make proper use of their degree," Awad explains. "Each year there are 300 Arab graduates in the computing field, yet only 1.8% of those employed in the Israeli hi-tech industry are Arabs," he says. Although the unemployment rates provided by the National Employment Service are not that high (Arab academics constitute approximately 3% of all unemployed academics in Israel), says Awad, the problem is much more acute due to "invisible unemployment." "Many graduates eventually find jobs which do not suit their education and skills," he says. "They do not work in research or hi-tech, but give services, fix computers or work for a family business. It's a way of living, yes, but then isn't it such a waste of talent and ability?" Milad Elias, from Nazareth, graduated from Ruppin College two years ago with a BA in computer science and now works as a software counselor. He was the only Arab in his graduating class and he is the only one who hasn't been able to find a job in the hi-tech industry. "I was ready to relocate, work for free for a few months, anything, but no luck so far," he says. Nonetheless, Elias says he will continue hunting for a hi-tech job. Some graduates choose to stay in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv because it's easier to find jobs there than in their native cities or villages, says Bahar, who is finishing his third year in accounting and economics at the Hebrew University. "I'm not saying that it's wrong [to live away from home], yet I believe that the right thing to do is to go back and to contribute to your community with the acquired skills," adds Bahar. Bahar has high hopes for his future even as he is aware of the "glass ceiling" that may impede his progress. "Let's face it: Some work places are inaccessible to us [Arab Israelis] because of the army service requirement," he explains. "Sometimes it's ridiculous. An acquaintance of mine applied for a job in a music store and although she studies music, is 23 and has all the necessary qualifications, she was still rejected because she didn't serve in the army! What relevance is there between army service and working in a music store, I wonder?" WHEREAS MANY students and graduates say that being an Arab is definitely a disadvantage for job-seekers in Israel, Orna Segal, the director-general of Manpower, one of the largest employment companies in the country, believes there is a place for every qualified graduate. "There is a lot of openness in the market right now and a lot of demand for multi-language employees from different sectors, plenty of possibilities," says Segal. "Obviously their Hebrew has to be perfect, otherwise it might be a problem." Yet of the many Manpower branches in Israel, none is located in Arab-populated cities or villages. "We do a lot of work in this sector, but until now there wasn't a specific need to open a branch there," Segal explains. Ya'acov Zigdon, deputy director-general of the National Employment Service, says there are three major obstacles that stand between Arab college graduates and the right job. "First of all, there is the geographical distance. When it comes to prestigious and unique jobs, it's easier to locate them in big cities, not so much in villages or small towns," he explains. "Second, such major players in the employment field as the army and security related industry are simply not available to Arabs, and this is quite a large chunk of jobs that we are talking about," he continues. "And third, yes, there is prejudice, although nobody will admit openly that he refuses to hire someone based on his ethnicity or religion." Zigdon adds: "In my experience, if there is a job opening in the South, people will travel all over the country and often relocate so that they can get this job. This is not the case with Arab graduates, especially women, as it is difficult for them to leave their families and relocate; they need their place of employment to be close to home." As a result, says Zigdon, the National Employment Service has created a special project, funded by the Abraham Fund and the Galilee Development Authority, that matches female Arab university graduates with prospective employers. Another aid strategy caters to Arab students before they even graduate. In anticipation of post-graduation challenges, two years ago the Hebrew University Student Union began offering Arab students a job workshop that teaches such skills as how to handle oneself during an interview and how to compose a resume in Hebrew. Hani Fronman, the union's employment coordinator, says that the workshop was created in response to the frustrations expressed by many of the Arab students. "I think it's important to give the [Arab] students some tools to handle the 'real world' before they graduate," she says. "After all, they come from a different world." For years there has been talk about establishing an Arab university either in Nazareth or in Shfaram. In 2005 then education minister Limor Livnat opposed the idea, calling it "racist," and claiming "there will never be an Arab university in Israel. But if such an idea were to come into fruition, says Bahar, many Arab students would prefer to study there rather than in Jerusalem or Tel Aviv. "First of all, it would be closer to home, and some students would not have to live in dorms. They could just go to school from home everyday, which for many families is a very important consideration [especially when female students are concerned]," explains Bahar. Another advantage would allow students to study at least some of the curriculum in Arabic instead of jumping head-first into Hebrew-language studies. Presently, many Arab students go through the university's year-long Mechina preparatory program to develop their Hebrew skills in anticipation of the college exams, which can only be taken in Hebrew and with a limited time extension only during the first year. Still, many students say they would enroll at Hebrew University even if an Arab university existed. "Hebrew University has a long tradition and its diploma is very valuable, that's why we are making this effort," says Muhammad. Arouba Saad studies English literature at Hebrew University. She lives in Ramallah and for two years has struggled through the checkpoints on her way to school. For the most part, her Israeli ID card has allowed her to pass in and out of Israel as she pleased. But during high security alerts, such as during the recent Annapolis peace summit and US President George W. Bush's visit to Jerusalem, there is a full closure on the PA-controlled territories, forcing Saad to miss classes. Despite the commute difficulties involved, Saad chose to attend Hebrew University because she considers it the best academic establishment in Israel. A few years ago dozens of students from the West Bank and Gaza used to attend Hebrew University, but now it's almost impossible to secure the necessary permits to enter Israel, even on a student visa. "Once Hebrew University used to be an encounter point, as the Palestinian students had a chance to meet their Israeli peers in a situation other than at the checkpoint, when one is the soldier and the other is being searched and checked," says Hanna Baum, who graduated from Hebrew University before the beginning of the second intifada. Her friend Noam, an Israeli Jew who is also a Hebrew University graduate, objects: "If I want to study at Bir Zeit University [north of Ramallah], I cannot exactly do that either."