College head assails Smotrich for defunding programs for East Jerusalem Palestinians

Hadassah Academic College president says preparatory programs for academic integration of Arab students are ‘strategic asset for Israel’

Students at Hebrew University on the first day of the academic year on October 23, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)
Students at Hebrew University on the first day of the academic year on October 23, 2022. (Olivier Fitoussi/Flash90)

The head of a major Jerusalem college issued a warning against cuts in funding to academic preparatory programs for East Jerusalem Palestinians, calling the programs a “strategic asset” for Israel and cautioning that canceling them would greatly reduce the prospects of social mobility for East Jerusalemites.

Last Monday, Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich announced a NIS 200 million ($54 million) funding cut for an academic preparatory program – known in Hebrew as mechina – aimed at Arab students from East Jerusalem.

“The funding for this mechina started under a right-wing government,” Prof. Bertold Fridlender, head of the Hadassah Academic College in Jerusalem, told The Times of Israel. “The reason is simple: The programs are nothing less than a strategic national, social and economic asset.”

The move to cut funding, which Smotrich justified by citing an alleged presence of “radical Islamic cells” in Israeli universities, will cause the temporary freeze of a much broader five-year NIS 2.5 billion ($680 million) plan for the development of East Jerusalem. Contacted by The Times of Israel, a spokesman for Smotrich would not provide evidence for the existence of such radical cells.

“The allegations of a radical Islamic presence in Israeli academic institutions are absolutely untrue,” said Fridlender, rejecting claims that the cuts are needed for the sake of security.

“One of our main roles as an academic institution is to provide a pathway to social mobility for young people from disadvantaged backgrounds. This mechina is a bridge for young East Jerusalemites to enter the Israeli economy and society, and prevents the consequences of failed integration and low income,” he said.

Bertold Fridlender, head of the Hadassah Academic College in Jerusalem (Shachar Regev)

The program was launched by the Hadassah Academic College in 2017, in cooperation with the Jerusalem municipality, to facilitate access for students from East Jerusalem into Israeli academia. It was later adopted by the Hebrew University and other institutes of higher education in the city, due to the funding for the five-year plan.

Similar subsidized preparatory programs exist at Hadassah College for aspiring students from other disadvantaged segments of the Israeli population, such as ultra-Orthodox Jews.

Fridlender said that the mechina has made it possible to “correct a decade-long failure by successive Israeli governments, which allowed public schools in East Jerusalem to work under the supervision of the Education Ministry but teach the Jordanian or Palestinian curriculum without teaching the Hebrew language.”

Most schools in East Jerusalem operate according to the Palestinian curriculum, and do not teach Hebrew. Consequently, many prospective students from East Jerusalem see their applications to Israeli universities rejected due to poor Hebrew language skills.

“Young people from East Jerusalem often come to us without knowing a single word of Hebrew. Their exposure to Israeli society mostly takes place in negative contexts that deepen the gap between Jews and Arabs in Jerusalem,” Fridlender said. “In the preparatory program, we and other academic institutions in the city help them bridge language barriers, cultural gaps, and bring Jews and Arabs closer together.”

“The participants — about 100 a year at Hadassah College, and many more at Hebrew University — are presented with the nuances of Israeli society, they make friends with Jewish peers on campus, and learn that the bad experiences they may have been exposed to earlier in life do not constitute the full picture of what Israel is,” Fridlender said.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich leads a Knesset faction meeting of his far-right Religious Zionism party, July 10, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Hebrew University also released a statement denouncing the cuts, arguing that scrapping the mechina for East Jerusalemites will “relegate hundreds of young people to a life of ignorance, poverty, crime and terror” and leave them “without the ability to live in a shared society,” and warned that the repeal of the program will “increase hostility, enmity and violence between the two communities.”

The cuts to the mechina for East Jerusalem students came a day after Smotrich announced he was cutting an additional NIS 200 million in funding for Arab municipalities, a move that drew harsh criticism even from his own coalition partners.

“Most students in my mechina received full scholarships, and many from disadvantaged backgrounds would not otherwise have been able to attend it,” Aya Murrar, 20, a first-year student of geography and international relations at Hebrew University, said of her experience at the subsidized Sadarah mechina on the Hebrew University campus.

“The vast majority of them started Hebrew as complete beginners, some of them even learned the Hebrew alphabet for the first time in the mechina. And almost all of them, at the end of the year (sometimes with an additional summer semester) passed the Yael exam,” she added, referencing the Hebrew-language certification that allows entrance into Israeli universities.

Aya Murrar, 20, a student of Geography and International Relations at Hebrew University who completed the mechina preparatory program for East Jerusalem students in 2022 (courtesy).

“We had at least two hours of Hebrew each day, plus a range of other elective and compulsory courses, among the latter civics — how Israeli institutions work, how the Knesset works, and so on,” she said.

“Being in contact with Jewish teachers, and meeting Jewish Israeli students on campus during extracurricular activities, such as language exchanges, definitely had an impact on the Arab students.

“The program helped all of its participants get into university, but also changed our perception of Israeli society. It gained an extremely positive reputation among young people in East Jerusalem over the years,” Murrar continued.

“There is a lot of potential amongst the East Jerusalem youth, to study, become successful at whatever they choose, and integrate in Israeli society. They only need to be given a chance.”

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