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Encountering the Other on Campus

On Tuesday May 5th, Boston Partners for Peace hosted a webinar with leaders from Mabat, a non-governmental organization (NGO) that focuses on addressing the divisions between diverse groups of students on Israeli college campuses. The webinar featured Founder Daniel Langenthal, Executive Director Lior Shorer and Mabat alumni and current facilitator Ameen Hardan. They discussed why they think Jewish and Arab students on Israeli campuses have a misperception of each other, how their organization attempts to change that, and why they think it is important to focus on Jewish-Arab relations specifically on college campuses.

Daniel said that he came up with the idea of Mabat after serving in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) and living in different parts of Israel. He said his experiences revealed to him that many people in Israel, especially Jews and Arabs, have a misperception of the “other”, and felt it was important for them to better understand the other’s “perspective” (Mabat in Hebrew).

The reason why many Jews and Arabs in Israel do not understand each other may be because they are separated in nearly every aspect of their lives. For example, most Jews and Arabs study in separate educational systems and over 90% of both Jews and Arabs live in separate towns.

By studying in different schools and living in different areas, Jews and Arabs barely have a chance to interact or work with each other until they enter the university. Indeed, as Lior later emphasized, the college campuses are often the first and only time Jews and Arabs in Israel have the chance to interact with each other, but even at the universities they often exclude themselves.

Five years ago, I studied abroad for a semester at the University of Haifa where I had the chance to observe the relations between Jews and Arabs at Israel’s most diverse academy and came to a similar conclusion as Lior did. Although the Jewish and Arab students seemed to get along studying together in class and living together in the same dorms, they tended to separate themselves during their casual and social interactions, such as sitting separately in the cafeteria or outside on the grass. In other words, they only interacted when they had to, but they did not develop strong friendships and likely did not develop deeper understandings of each other.

There may be a couple of reasons why Jews and Arabs voluntarily exclude themselves from each other at the university. One is because they may be experiencing a “culture shock” when encountering the other for the first time and feel more comfortable continuing to associated themselves with the people they relate to and know already understand them. A second reason may be simply because the universities are not taking an initiative promote multiculturalism and encourage them to interact with each other outside of the classroom, which is where Mabat comes in.

Mabat attempts to encourage more Jewish and Arab students on Israeli college campuses to come together by participating in their programs. They currently have partnerships with 8 different colleges in Israel and run 25-30 student dialogue groups a year.

There are a couple of reasons why Mabat focuses on encouraging more Jews and Arabs to come together specifically on college campuses. As mentioned before, it is often the first and only chance they have to interact with each other. A second reason, though, is because people’s college years are a particularly crucial time for the development of their identity, and therefore may be a great opportunity to reconcile their differences and foster better relations.

Similar to how the conflict between Israelis and Palestinians is further driven by their conflicting identities and narratives, the same concept may apply to the relations between Jewish and Arab citizens of Israel. Most Jewish students served in the IDF before entering the university, which strengthens their narrative and identity as Israeli. In contrast, most Arabs in Israel do not serve in the military and many of them identify with the Palestinians, albeit to a certain extent. Indeed, many of Israel’s Arab citizens have family in the Palestinian Territories and some of them have grandparents who were affected by and still uphold the memories of the Nakba in 1948.

Therefore, one of the ways Mabat attempts to reconcile Jewish and Arab students’ conflicting identities and narratives is by holding dialogue sessions so they may better understand the other’s perspective. One program they talked about was their developmental dialogue course, where participants meet every week throughout the year to talk about the difficulties they have on campus. The course also has them participate in a photography workshop, which enables them to talk about their identities by retrieving five pictures that they feel represent their everyday life and where they come from.

Mabat alumni Ameen Hardan talked about how his experience in the program helped shape his identities and relationships with his Jewish counterparts. He said growing up, he did not feel fully Palestinian because he is a citizen of Israel, but he did not feel fully Israeli either because he is not Jewish. However, after interacting with Jewish students and seeing how the photographs he chose changed over the years, Ameen not only began to better understand his Jewish friends’ identities and narratives, but also began to better understand himself. He emphasized that his experiences helped him realize that identities are not singular or fixed, but can be flexible and you can have more than one. For example, Ameen said he now identifies himself as both an Arab and as a citizen of Israel, which may allow him to reconcile his seemingly conflicting identities.

Like many intergroup relationships, Jewish-Arab relations in Israel can and needs to be improved through further contact and exposure to the other, and Israeli college campuses may be the place to start. It is not only where they often first get the chance to meet each other, but their experiences in college also play a vital role in defining who they are, how they see the world and how they see the people around them. If more organizations like Mabat continue to bring more Jewish and Arab college students together, future leaders in Israel may be better equipped to promote further equality and integration between Jews and Arabs in Israel in other settings of their lives as well.

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