University of Haifa: Shared Society Is Blossoming in Haifa

university haifa

By Jacob Kamaras and Noa Amouyal | April 19, 2023

While pessimism is many people’s first instinct when it comes to the prospect of resolving the Arab-Israeli conflict, University of Haifa is comprised of optimists who are using its living laboratory in northern Israel to pioneer a model for shared society

Israel’s most diverse major city is naturally home to its most diverse university, with Arabs comprising 45% of University of Haifa’s undergraduate student body. The institution also plays a key role in forming the country’s middle class, as 47% of its undergraduates are the first generation in their family to enroll in higher education; moreover, 84% come from the northern Israeli periphery, positioning the school as an educational, economic, and social anchor in that region.

Initiatives such as the Jewish-Arab Community Leadership Program – in which 40 students from those communities learn leadership, peace building, and reconciliation techniques while participating in dialogue and multicultural social interaction through joint community projects – bring together Jews and Arabs in an environment in which they are equals, well-grounded in their identities, empowered and confident, and possessing the tools to create a genuine discourse and real transformation in society.

“In Israeli culture, we don’t often have opportunities to talk, even though we live side by side. We work together, but we don’t discuss our viewpoints together often. We don’t talk about the conflict and region,” says Sham Shalabi, 22, an Arab student studying Law at University of Haifa.

“We don’t have a platform to meet each other and get to know each other, and who we’re talking about when we’re seeing the news,” echoes Maya Shimoni, a Jewish student pursuing a Master’s in Marine Biology.

A multifaceted approach to cultivating coexistence

The Jewish-Arab Community Leadership Program is just one component of University of Haifa’s broad, multipronged strategy for cultivating coexistence. Research shows that when Jewish and Arab students are doing nothing more than attending class together, in the absence of any further intervention, resentment grows between them.

Dialogue, too, is not sufficient as an intervention in and of itself. “Dialogue lasts up until there’s an issue,” says Yael Granot-Bein, director of social engagement at University of Haifa’s Office of the Dean of Students, referring to terrorism or political tensions. “Once that happens, everything evaporates.”

Accordingly, the University pursues three tracks for building shared society. Through dialogue and civil action, the school facilitates meaningful dialogue between students and teaches entrepreneurial skills for collaboratively designing and managing shared community projects. Through empowerment, it expands access to higher education and equips Arab students with life skills that are critical for educational and career success, broadening their future opportunities. Finally, by nurturing agents of social change, the university teaches students peace-building techniques and skills which they bring to their communities as mentors and role models.

“We do a dialogue, with action,” Granot-Bein says. “So, the students always go hand in hand into the community to work together toward something, whether it’s identifying social issues or creating solutions, or going into Jewish and Arab schools, and serving as role models.”

Helping Druze students feel at home

For the Arab and Druze communities, University of Haifa offers 5,000 high school students from seven Druze and ten Arab villages increased access to and knowledge of university-level education. For Druze women in particular, the El Sabil project helps 600 women develop leadership skills and self-confidence.

Yara Zaherelden, 24, who is studying toward a Master’s in Diplomacy, says University of Haifa’s International Program represented the first time she faced other cultures. “At first, there were many situations where I didn’t know how to behave exactly,” she says. “There were groups of Arabs and Jews and I didn’t know where I belonged, since I’m a Druze. I don’t want to identify with a group only because of my ethnicity…I’m secular, but Druze women are usually traditional.”

Yet, at University of Haifa, Zaherelden can be comfortable in her authentic identity. While she does not drink alcohol, she recalls that Jewish students from her Middle Eastern studies class “told me to come [socialize] and they wanted us to be part of the crowd. They didn’t pressure me to drink. In Haifa, I never have to fake who I am.”

Shimoni participates in the HaifaLead program, in which 15 students get to know the city through weekly tours and meetings with local activists. During the tours, they map out local challenges and then break up into small working groups and come up with possible solutions. Shimoni’s group works on bringing Jews and Arabs together in Haifa – but she emphasizes that these interactions should be organic and rooted in everyday routine, rather than fostered for the explicit purpose of Arab-Jewish dialogue.

“We’re working together and by nature getting to know each other,” says Shimoni, who grew up in Chicago, calling her group “a place to just be human together and meet each other and be normal.”

Shalabi wants those who are not familiar with the Arab community to know that “we are a peaceful people. I think there’s a lot of Islamophobia around the world right now. I wish people knew that our religion is also peaceful. We don’t want war or for anybody to get hurt. In the end we’re all human. I don’t think many Jewish Israelis know this because we don’t interact often and the media often distorts things.”

Accepting different narratives

Nisreen Morqus, program director and facilitator in the University’s Jewish-Arab Community Leadership Program, says the uniqueness of the initiative “lies in the combination of dialogue sessions and community outreach, in which the students choose to work in the Haifa community and promote shared experiences in Haifa’s neighborhoods while serving as role models to Jews and Arabs working together.”

“They do this through organizing musical and cultural events for Arabs and Jews together, joint tours of Arab villages which they plan and guide and through facilitation of workshops in Arab and Jewish schools,” says Morqus, who is from the Arab community. “Working together on these projects is a continuation of the process they began in class, during their dialogue sessions, and it is done on an equal ground – which is very rare for Arab people in Israel. The modeling the students provide Jewish and Arab children and youth gives us hope that things can be different here and that we can promote a shared and equal society, while containing our differences and accepting the different narratives.”

American Society of the University of Haifa (ASUH) Chief Executive Officer Naomi Reinharz believes that Americans who are passionate about Israel would be well-served becoming more aware of the paradigm for shared society that is blossoming in Haifa.

“When your knowledge about the current state of affairs in Israel is mostly limited to news reports, you are going to miss the genuine human stories on the ground that actually demonstrate the capacity for real change in the region,” Reinharz says. “For supporters of Israel living in the United States, many of whom are naturally interested in the issue of coexistence, University of Haifa’s story of building shared society shows a side of Israel that should give them abundant hope for a brighter future that is already in the making.”

Morqus, drawing from her experience facilitating dialogue groups for American Jews, encourages that community to study the history of Israeli Arabs and to understand that “there are Palestinians who wish to be true partners in creating a shared society here. Get to know us and our lives here in Israel.”

Granot-Bein adds, “Through their dialogue and community projects in Haifa, our Jewish and Arab students are empowered to proactively address the most significant challenges facing their communities, including most notably the often tense relationship between their ethnic communities. While the outlook on the Arab-Israeli conflict in general tends to be pessimistic, University of Haifa students are pioneering a new story and a brighter future on shared society by using these activities to become agents of meaningful change.”