What makes you feel comfortable? What indicates to you that a space is welcoming? Well, everyone has their own list. Maybe it’s a ramp for wheelchair accessibility or for pushing strollers. Maybe it’s rainbow flag in the window showing solidarity with the LGBTQ community, a kosher sign at a market or a vegan symbol on the menu.
Each semester, I ask my students at Hebrew University to ‘map’ the campus, raising for them the question of what symbols they find inviting, what makes them feel comfortable. We split into groups, draw a map, and then compare notes. There are always points of consensus – every student knows to identify the cheapest coffee spots – but beyond that, the list diverges. And it always leads to a discussion about what a college campus signals to its students – “We want you to feel at home here. We are rooting for you to succeed.” Are these markers observable and obvious? Too subtle? Are they there at all?
Since 2011, campuses around the country have been carefully considering this question in conjunction with new governmental directives and civil society programs to broaden overall access to higher education and the advanced economy, specifically for populations such as the Ultra-Orthodox and Arab communities.
For the Palestinian Arab citizens of Israel, a multi-layered effort to enhance their integration into higher education has already resulted in doubling the number of Arab students in Israeli schools in less than a decade. Yet, it is a complex challenge with many moving parts. Efforts range from career guidance and college recruitment in high school to pre-college preparatory courses, from financial support to mentorship opportunities for students. The Council for Higher Education and President Rivlin’s Israeli Hope in Academia are working with academic institutions in cooperation with civil society NGOs such as the Abraham Initiatives to address cultural inclusiveness.
And so this brings us back to the question of what makes a campus a welcoming place.
We can take my own campus, Hebrew University, as a mini case study to understand what is happening around the country. A good place to start is with Professor Mona Khoury-Kassabri, the Dean of the School of Social Work, who recently made history as the first Arab woman to be appointed dean at Hebrew University.
Prof. Khoury-Kassabri, together with Associate Dean Michal Hai-Attiass, has focused on the markers and actions needed to make her department welcoming to a diverse student body. For instance, it is one of the first departments to have signage in all three languages – Arabic, Hebrew and English. (Up until recently Arabic has been largely non-existent at university settings). While there are steps to have more communication in the Arabic language on campuses – such as the Council for Higher Education recommendation to have Arabic translations of all university websites, the School of Social Work is going a step further. It offers counseling courses in Arabic and ensures that important departmental emails and holiday greetings are in all three languages. The department is actively recruiting Arab academic and administrative faculty – whose percentages remain very low nationwide. And not only are Jewish holidays observed, but each of the Jewish, Muslim and Christian holidays are celebrated jointly at the department.
The importance of these types of efforts cannot be underestimated. Arab students, who are generally younger than the average Jewish student, are usually leaving home for the first time and living on campuses located largely in majority Jewish cities that are vastly different from so many Arab villages. Having grown up with spoken and literary Arabic, they now have to deal with rigorous academic studies in Hebrew and English. Many are first generation college students, coping with financial concerns, housing challenges and overall culture shock all at the same time. The cost of not addressing these issues has meant relatively high dropout rates.
The Abraham Initiatives has focused on education and integration for years- working with partners on projects as varied as research assessing Arab students’ attitudes towards academia to creating handbooks for Arab students to help them acclimate to campus life. For the past thirty years, it has never shied away from taking on some of the most challenging issues facing the Palestinian Arab society, whether in media, education, politics or law enforcement. One of its early priorities was to develop programs for Arabic language learning in schools (which the government has now adopted), as well as to offer Arabic courses to professionals such as doctors, journalists and university staff who can benefit from a knowledge of Arabic in their daily work. It has long championed a variety of programs around the country to advance a more shared society, and it works in partnership with Hebrew University’s Center for the Study of Multiculturalism and Diversity, as well as with a variety of campuses around the country.
Since its establishment on Hebrew U’s campus in 2015, the Center for the Study of Multiculturalism and Diversity has spearheaded efforts in research, curriculum development, cultural events, student day celebrations, all to promote an understanding of diversity.
In partnership with the Abraham Initiatives, the Center offers Arabic classes and cultural competency courses to administrative staff and faculty and runs tours to Arab communities, especially during important cultural festivals such as Ramadan.
Of course, there is still a long way to go in terms of diversity and inclusivity, especially given the backdrop of heated political rhetoric. The ongoing debates over how to define ‘Israeli-ness’ reach campuses as well. But at the same time, select academic institutions around the country are moving towards creating more welcoming spaces and acknowledging the essential role that they often play as the first point of contact between Jews and Arabs.
We all know what makes us feel comfortable, what makes us feel at home. We all carry with us our own ‘maps.’ The collaborative efforts by public institutions, academic campuses and civil society provide opportunities to celebrate diversity and inclusivity. Such opportunities are the kind that will allow us not only to ‘map’ the present, but to ‘map’ a better future.