Maverick educator seeks to change Israeli Arab world from within

Almost impossibly, Dr. Dalia Fadila became the first female dean of an Islamic college in Israel. On a revolutionary mission to advance Arab society, she has now opened her own set of schools

Dov Lieber is The Times of Israel's Arab affairs correspondent.

Educator Dr. Dalia Fadila, photographed in Tira (Courtesy)
Educator Dr. Dalia Fadila, photographed in Tira (Courtesy)

TIRA — The little girl’s name is Amal and she has a room of her own.

This might not sound revolutionary. But as the Arab-Israeli educator who dreamed up Amal says, “Whatever might be taken for granted in any other context, here it’s a revolution.”

Amal’s room appears on the first page of a book, “Where’s My Family?” meant to teach English to five-year-old Arabs. But for Dr. Dalia Fadila, as befits the holder of a PhD in literature, every image is a symbol. “It’s here to show individualism. Woman aren’t (generally) being looked at as individuals in the Arab community, entitled to their own rooms.”

The story of Amal and her progressive family — her father makes their sandwiches for school and the business suit-clad mother goes to work — is part of the curriculum being taught in Fadila’s latest success story, Q Schools. The idea is that while learning English, students also acquire progressive values and become citizens of the world. Working alongside an illustrator, Fadila conceived and wrote an entire series of Q School books, and over 2,000 students, ages 2-18, have studied her curriculum in five locations in Israel and Jordan in the past eight years.

The first Q school in Tira, began in 2008 with 30 students. This year, the schools are also operating in the northern Israeli Arab towns of Nazareth, Jaljulia and Tayibe, in East Jerusalem, in the West Bank city of Ramallah and, since 2012, in Amman, Jordan. In 2014, Fadila also founded a new bilingual preschool for ages 2-4 in Tira.

In Israel, the schools have grown with almost no advertisement. Rather, Q School founder and general director Fadila says the quality of its graduates’ English, and their subsequent success, have attracted parents. As for the growth into Jordan, that was the result of a Ted Talk she gave five years ago in Israel that caught the attention of Jordanian educators.

Amal in her own room, in Dalia Fadila’s Where’s My Family (Courtesy)
Amal in her own room, in Dalia Fadila’s ‘Where’s My Family?’ (Courtesy)

I spent an evening with Fadila, 43, at the Q School in her hometown of Tira, located about an hour north of Tel Aviv within the cluster of conservative Arab communities known as “the Triangle.”

With her shoulder-length hair, bright red lipstick, zebra stripped pants and knee-length beige coat, Fadila balances modern fashion with traditional expectations. During our interview, she spoke in long, complex sentences of academic English. It’s easy to visualize her as a professor at the Interdisciplinary Center Herzliya (IDC), where she teaches about the complexities of Arab-Israeli society. What is harder to imagine is that for eight years she was the dean of al-Qasemi college — founded in 1989 strictly for Sharia and Islamic studies.

The day before meeting her, I was eating lunch with two Arab women from the Triangle at Tel Aviv University. They said I must be mistaken: no woman could ever have been the head of the al-Qasemi.

‘To become a feminist, first you have a dream. Then someone blocks that dream’

If there was a household in Tira that would produce a revolutionary Arab educator in the 1980s, local residents might have guessed it would be Fadila’s.

Her father was the head of education in what was then a village of 11,000 residents (and today is a town of 25,000). He was so progressive — sometimes to the dismay of his children and more traditional wife — he often used the example of Jewish redemption after the Holocaust to preach the value of education.

Under her father’s tutelage, Fadila and her sister would become the first women from the village to attend university. Currently, two of her five younger siblings are master’s students in the US, and the others are a lawyer, an engineer and a teacher.

Despite her progressive household, Fadila says she suffered growing up within the confines of the wider conservative and religious community. “For many years I felt suffocated,” she says earnestly, as students bustle around us in the lobby of the Tira Q College. “I thought I should have some freedom — freedom of expression, freedom of movement, freedom of development. Some choice of becoming and being able to dream of becoming someone I wanted to be.”

Out of the sense of repression, she says, her feminism was born. “To become a feminist, first you have a dream,” she says dryly. “Then there is an obstacle in front of that dream.”

In high school, she devoured Arab feminist literature — a genre she now thinks has little value. But what she learned from the feminist movement in Arab-Israeli society in the 1980s was that women with power would be punished by society with divorce and social marginalization. And so rather than becoming a frustrated social critic, Fadila decided “I just wanted to be the leader from within.”

Fadila attended Tel Aviv’s Bar-Ilan University, where she took her first degree in English literature and her master’s degree in female minority literature. In the stories of female minority writers, she hoped “to see how women in literature dealt with anger.”

During the Gulf War in the early 1990s, the rare Arab student in the lecture hall recalls having difficulty communicating with the other, Jewish students. At times she felt she was being “held responsible” for Saddam Hussein’s Scud missile attacks on Ramat Gan, where the university is located. She doesn’t much blame the other students, however, sounding coolly academic in calling those difficulties a “personal emotional experience” and not a “concrete external encounter.”

She did, however, find allies among the Jewish-American professors in the university’s English department, whom she says were “role models of how a minority can be excellent.”

‘Either I could choose to be angry and blame the Jews, the men and the Muslims, and stay in this philosophical chaos, or I could take all the ingredients, like a chef, and try to put them together’

A decade later, bent on pursuing a PhD, she visited the office of her favorite professor, Michael P. Kramer, an expert in Jewish-American literature. Kramer says that when Fadila first approached him, she thought she had to write about classical authors such as Hawthorne and Melville. Instead, he suggested she study scarcely researched Arab-American authors. “Once the door was opened, Fadila ran in,” said Kramer.

This was soon after the 9/11 attacks, and Fadila says she felt her higher education needed “to serve a specific agenda.” Through her PhD topic, she aimed to define who she was and learn how to make that definition acceptable. By doing that, she hoped she could help expand possibilities for all Arab Israelis.

The eureka moment came when she turned in the first 50 pages of her PhD on Sirine, an Iraqi-American character in the story “Crescent,” by Jordanian-American writer Diane Abu-Jaber. Sirine works in a Lebanese restaurant where she successfully “hyphenates” her identity by fusing Iraqi and American cuisine. “It’s a very symbolic book and I fell in love with it. I wrote this long chapter as a celebration of the whole book,” she remembers. “And then I gave it to Professor Kramer.”

“’This isn’t a PhD,’ he said, “because you’ve fallen in love with the character. It’s not literary analysis.”

And then it clicked. Once Fadila learned to distance herself from Sirene and see her as a subject, the PhD candidate could do the same to herself. By objectively viewing herself, she could embrace all her seemingly contradictory personalities.

“Either I could choose to be angry and blame the Jews, the men and the Muslims, and stay in this philosophical chaos,” she recalls feeling. “Or I could take all the ingredients, like a chef, and try to put them together.”

“Arabs in America, like Jews in America and other minorities, made a decision one day that, since they are in this new context of a minority within a majority, they can make a decision about who they are. Calling yourself African American is about balancing your heritage. This is a systematic approach.”

Fadila believes Arabs in Israel haven’t yet mastered the hyphenated identity. Rather, they have lived in “ambivalent chaos” since Israel was established. Are they Palestinians? Are they Israelis? Muslims? Arabs? The tension from this identity crisis continues to stall their progress, she says.

The trials of a young revolutionary

The Q schools aren’t Fadila’s first attempt to change Arab education through English learning. While studying for her first and second degrees, she taught at the high school she had attended in Tira. There, the young idealist got her first lessons in the consequences of going against the grain.

“I wanted to empower my students and try to develop their thinking through English literature. But I found myself being attacked by the community for wasting students’ time, for not concentrating on grades and grammar.”

The male employees at al-Qasime college made clear they considered it ‘chutzpah’ that she, a female director, would call a meeting

Indeed, other teachers and parents signed a letter seeking to kick her out, which she fought for three years, but ultimately to no avail.

Her unique teaching style and newly printed master’s degree, however, did impress the English education representative from the Ministry of Education, who invited her to teach at the al-Qasime institute nearby in Baqa al-Gharbiye, which had just opened an English department.

And so Fadila became the first female faculty member at the religious and male dominated al-Qasime college. But every piece of English literature she chose to teach, she says, would spark a mini war. Students and faculty accused her of attacking their Islamic values, even though she was choosing nothing too progressive. Among her teaching selections: “The Horse Dealer’s Daughter” by D.H. Lawrence — a coming-of-age novel set in 1920’s rural England about a daughter transforming into someone’s wife; and Alice Walker’s “Everyday Use,” a story set in the 1960’s American South in which two young African-American women struggle with their heritage.

“These stories were dramatic enough for the students to protest that I was ruining their good Muslim morals. It wasn’t radical feminist literature. I was just representing two different models of life. Can you make a decision about why you wear a hijab? But I was shaking the status quo and they couldn’t accept that.”

The Horse Dealer’s Daughter, by D.H. Lawrence
The Horse Dealer’s Daughter, by D.H. Lawrence

Still, it was 2002 and the institute was looking to be accredited as an official college by the Ministry of Education. Those two degrees from an Israeli university made her a valuable asset. The president of the college — who she says truly believed in woman’s empowerment — promoted her to head of the English department.

No one showed up to the first meeting Fadila called. The male employees made clear they considered it “chutzpah” that she, a female director, would call a meeting. So Fadila started building her own networks. She arranged a first dialogue meeting in the college with nearby communities, bringing Arab and Jews together. Then, using her English and PR skills, she organized an international religious conference at the institute, drawing Muslim leaders from Turkey and Christian leaders from Europe.

The conference took place three years in a row. Everyone within the college, including the religious scholars, started to appreciate the international prestige she was attracting. “I played the game for a couple of years. This is how I gained connections and power within the system,” she says unapologetically.

Success led the college president to promote her to dean, the youngest ever. But, in a familiar theme, her male colleagues stopped showing up to meetings, and her standard letters of critique were taken as effrontery.

When the president took a year off in the US, he asked her to stand in for him. But what should have been a triumph “was a horrible, tearful period” of male resistance in every form, says Fadila, including a demand ahead of that year’s Ramadan that she step down to focus on preparing meals for her three children (two sons, today aged 11 and 17, and a 16-year-old daughter).

The supportive president then left al-Qasime, and she was not offered his job. Instead, she was offered the presidency of al-Qasime’s fledgling college of engineering. She went from dean of 4,000 students to managing just a hundred.

Undaunted, within three years Fadila had changed the name of the college to the Baqa al-Garbiyyeh College for Science and Engineering, relocated it closer to Highway 6 to make it more accessible, brought in new engineers and teachers, notably including more women and Jews, and boosted the student body to 1,000. (Despite her work as general manager of the Q Schools, Fadila continues to serve as president of the college, working there most mornings.)

Dalia Fadila in the Tira pre-school, with her book Where’s My Family (Courtesy)
Dalia Fadila in the Tira pre-school, with her book ‘Where’s My Family?’ (Courtesy)

Describing the tough career arch, Fadila does not sound bitter. She knows, she says, that she is fighting against people’s deeply held beliefs. She is also encroaching upon one of the few areas in which Arab-Israeli men still feel they can achieve prestigious social status. “Arab men don’t have the army or governmental institutions to work in. They generally don’t have big high-tech businesses to develop. They have schools, municipalities, one or two colleges, and family businesses,” she says. “As a women, you’re taking their position.”

Fadila’s husband, Abed, who is a trauma coordinator at a hospital in Kfar Saba (and who shows up at the Q School on the night I’m there to help out with some administrative work), says it’s “challenging to be a partner of someone who is leading change. But he is proud of his wife, he says, and recognizes her as “someone of rare talent.”

To keep their household stable under the pressure of her work, he says, the two do their best not to bring their work problems home.

Educations trumps intifada

Fadila believes her message is stronger because, “as an Arab-Muslim women from the village,” she is a real insider. But she knows she has her work cut out, in Tira and beyond. For a start, the national Arab-Israeli female employment rate is just 33%.

She is angry with Arab parliament members who spend most of their time “lobbying for the freedom of Palestine, while neglecting education and employment.” Thousands of Arabs from Israel go to Jordan or the West Bank for university, and return woefully unprepared for the Israeli job market, she complains. She does believe in two states for two peoples, but chooses to focus on the point that Arabs within Israel should be treated as equal citizens.

“Maybe it’s time,” she says boldly, “for us to focus on our issues as a minority. We have no other context, no other society. As a mother, my dream is for my children to be successful here.”

‘Fully educated kids, with something to lose, will be more positive towards themselves and the state. They will also have the skills to work better for their rights and to compete for jobs. That’s a much softer revolution than an intifada’

In a move to improve higher education in the Arab sector, the Israeli government recently announced special universities to be built for Arabs in Israel. The government also recently promised almost $4 billion in a strategic plan to vitalize the entire Arab-Israeli sector.

While many Arab politicians say they will believe the promises of funding when they see the money, and while a chorus of opposition politicians have criticized Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for focusing on lawlessness and incitement against Israel in the Arab sector after the January 1 Dizengoff Street killings by Nashat Milhem, Fadila is resolutely focused on pushing for empowerment from within the community.

Though she criticizes Netanyahu and others in government for some of their public comments, Arab Israelis can and must strengthen themselves through integration with the Jewish majority, she says, and should focus a little less on “cultural sensitivity.”

Fadila’s educational work has found many admirers in US Jewish communities where she has lectured, including New York, Washington, New Jersey and Baltimore. Communities have helped fund scholarships for many of her students who live below the poverty line. The largest donor is the Jewish Federation of St. Louis, which she describes as a “small but wonderful community.” Another important donor is Reform Rabbi Jannet Liss from Long Island, who provides hundreds of English children’s books, such as Dr. Seuss, to be put in libraries in Q schools. For the first time, English books are readily accessible to Arab children.

Fadila regrettably admits that her schools have no Arab donors yet. There is a plan to receive government funding for the pre-school in Tira.

She laments that relations between Jews and Arabs in Israel were getting worse even before the Tel Aviv shootings ratcheted up frictions. “There is more tension and suspicion,” she notes, partly “because the government leadership is not wise enough to watch their mouths, including Netanyahu.” She points to direct consequences of the friction, including the simple fact that since the new wave of terror began in October, Jews have mostly stopped visiting Tira’s popular Saturday market.

Three hours into our interview, as Fadila asks the college cleaning lady to bring us some water and cookies, it is clear she is happy to keep answering my questions for as long as I ask them. But I have to get back to Tel Aviv, an hour away, and I’m worried about public transport stopping as it grows late.

So she sums up her motivation and her vision: “Fully educated kids, with something to lose, will be more positive towards themselves and the state. They will also have the skills to work better for their rights and to compete for jobs. That’s a much softer revolution than an intifada,” she says, “and in the long run, more sustainable.”

And then, unprompted, Fadila and her husband drive me back to Tel Aviv.

read more:
Never miss breaking news on Israel
Get notifications to stay updated
You're subscribed