Palestinian students are being exploited as part of a bid to improve Israel’s international image, says Yara Sa’di.
Yara Sa’adi – The Electronic Intifada 17 March 2014
Palestinian students at Israeli universities are likely to notice an increase in the number of scholarships they can apply for in the coming months. Various websites for academic institutions will also be translated into Arabic.
These changes are the result of a government decision to allocate some $82 million over the course of six years for integrating “minorities” into the higher education system.
At first glance, it may appear that Israel has undertaken a U-turn in policy following decades of discriminatory and exclusionary practices against Palestinian students.
Yet when deeper questions are asked, it becomes obvious that whatever intentions those who drafted this policy had, standing up for the rights of Palestinian citizens of Israel was not one of them.
The new policy was devised as part of a project to boost “pluralism” in Israeli universitiesby ensuring greater access for minorities.
The Israeli Council for Higher Education, the body behind the project, has identified the minorities targeted as “Arabs, Druze and Circassians.”
“Need for improvement”
This project is part of the “Israel 2028” strategy, which has been initiated and funded by the US-Israel Commission for Science and Technology.
The strategy, which was approved by the Israeli government in May 2008, aims to help Israel become one of top 10 or 15 leading countries in the world in terms of economic performance and quality of life within twenty years.
Among the objectives Israel has listed were joining the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) — something Israel achieved in 2010 — and afterwards to improve its ranking in that club of industrialized countries.
The “pluralism” goal was set with that in mind. According to the Council for Higher Education, the surrounding topics had been “in the headlines during Israel’s recent accession process to the OECD, which identified employment and education for disadvantaged Israelis (mainly Arab and ultra-Orthodox [Jews]) as two top areas in need of improvement.”
This implies that — after more than 65 years of relentless oppression — Israel has realized that its policies towards Palestinians holding Israeli citizenship were having an adverse effect on its image abroad.
It is important to underscore that there has been no sea-change in the Council for Higher Education’s outlook. This is the same authority which in the last couple of years hasrecommended that the politics department at Ben Gurion University of the Negev be shut down because of the allegedly left-wing and anti-Zionist leaning of some of its staff.
Titled “Breaking through the glass ceiling,” the video suggests that the only significant barriers which Palestinians face are a difficulty in learning Hebrew and a lack of awareness in the Arab world about such concepts as “industrial design.”
Nothing is said about the structural reasons for why Palestinians are disadvantaged. These include the low investment in kindergartens and schools for Palestinians living in present-day Israel, the politicization of the education system and the imposition of an Israeli curriculum on Palestinian students, as well as various discriminatory laws.
Nothing is said about how the Israeli education system grants more rights to Israeli settlers than to Palestinian citizens of Israel.
An updated version of the 1994 Absorption of Discharged Soldiers Law (amended four years ago) “entitles” those who live in “national priority areas” — which include Israel’s settlements in the occupied West Bank — to a “compensation package” in return for their completion of military service.
The “compensation package” includes a year of free preparatory academic education and privileged access to student accommodation.
Nothing is said about the prevalence of racism at Israeli universities or the discrimination against Palestinian graduates in the labor market.
And nothing is said about how Palestinian Bedouins are forced to put up with a lower standard of education than Israeli Jews.
Adalah, the Legal Center for Minority Rights in Israel, has documented how some schools for Bedouin villages in the Naqab (Negev) are not connected to the electricity grid. The resulting interruptions to the power supply have meant that the school day is frequently shortened.
The proportion of children from these villages who qualify for a Baghrut — the leaving certificate for Israeli schools — is just 28 percent, compared to more than 66 percent for their Jewish counterparts (“Adalah petitions supreme court to connect seven Bedouin schools in the Naqab to electricity grid,” 24 July 2013).
Blaming the victims
The video tries to pin the blame on Palestinian society, suggesting that it is underdeveloped and holds back its bright children from realizing their potential by not valuing the importance of higher education.
For female students, Israeli universities are presented as a refuge from the patriarchal nature of Palestinian society.
Unsurprisingly, all these Orientalist claims are aired by Palestinians themselves, as if this makes them valid. Those who appear in the video imply that each individual can find his or her own solution.
The moral of the story seems to be that hard work and a belief in one’s abilities can lead Palestinian students to astonishing achievements.
The tendency of the video to blame the victims of colonization while portraying Israel as a prince on a white horse is an old and widely-used Zionist propaganda technique.
For example, it underpins the “pinkwashing” campaigns undertaken by Israel, which depict Israel as a defender of gay rights in order to divert attention away from the occupation ofGaza and the West Bank.
Moreover, this propaganda video denies that the underlying issues are inherently political by promoting the narrative that Palestinians constitute a poor population, the problems of which can be solved through special attention and “charity.”
In fact, Israel is trying to use the success of Palestinian students for the purposes of bolstering its economic ranking and to present itself as what its former prime minister Ehud Barak called a “villa in the jungle.”
The message of the video even contradicts one of the Council for Higher Education’s own reports. A paper compiled by its planning and budget committee cited estimates that 2-3 percent of staff in Israeli universities are Palestinians, whereas Palestinians comprise 20 percent of the wider population of present-day Israel (“Pluralism and equal opportunity in higher education,” October 2013 [PDF]).
An $82 million “pluralism” project will not undo the oppression and discrimination Palestinians have faced for more than six and a half decades.
So long as Israeli universities remain committed to Zionism, no amount of money will lead them to become “pluralist.”
Yara Sa’di is a postgraduate student and activist from Haifa