On Campus at Ibillin
After many years of planning, the first Arab university in Israel opens its first
academic year this week.
"For years we dreamed about something that we felt we deserved. We have
been able to realize our people's dream and establish an institution for
academic studies. We waited more than 50 years for this and we have taken
the first step in the establishment of a university that will open its doors to
all who seek knowledge - Arab and Jew, Christian, Muslim and Druze."
With these words, Bishop Dr. Elias Chacour declared this Tuesday the
opening of the academic year at the first Arab university in Israel, in Ibillin
in the Galilee. At this stage, under the license granted to it this summer by
the Council for Higher Education in Israel, the university will operate as a
branch of the University of Indianapolis in the United States.
The first Arab university in Israel is the fruit of the labors of Bishop Dr.
Chacour, who serves as president of the university, and its founding team of
professionals. Together they have succeeded in doing what politicians and
political parties - content with slogans and declarations in election platforms
and pamphlets - failed to do for many years.
At the beginning of his speech, Bishop Dr. Chacour said that the birth had
been painful. "We now stand before the newborn babe, the Mar Elias
University Campus," he declared. Mar Elias - Saint Elias - is the Arabic
name of Elijah the Prophet. The entire system of educational institutions that
operates in Ibillin is named after him - from kindergarten through the
university. It was Chacour who initiated its establishment and has operated
it to this day.
Chacour, 64, known as Abuna Chacour (Father Chacour), is among those
who were uprooted from the Arab village of Birim. His family found refuge
in the Galilee village of Jish (Gush Halav), and from childhood he was
destined for priesthood. Upon completing high school in Nazareth, he was
sent to study theology and philosophy at the Sorbonne in Paris. In 1965,
after six years of study, he was ordained as a priest. He returned to Israel
and was sent by the bishop of the Melkite Church in the Galilee at the time
to serve as temporary priest in Ibillin. "Luckily for us," say village oldtimers
with a touch of humor, "the bishop forget about Chacour and left him here."
Chacour acquired his higher education at the Technion and the universities
of Tel Aviv and Michigan. During the 1970s, he was active on the
committee for the return of the villagers who had been uprooted from Birim
and Ikrit. On August 23, 1972, he was among the leaders of the large
demonstration that marched in Jerusalem from Jaffa Gate to the government
complex, headed by Archbishop Youssef Raya, with the demand that justice
be done for the uprooted residents of the two villages.
The first educational project he established in Ibillin in 1968 was a
kindergarten, which during its first years was conducted in his study and his
bedroom. Over the years, an elementary school, a secondary school, a
teacher's center and a college of technology were established in Ibillin,
which now has 11,000 inhabitants. All of the educational institutions were
built on Jabal al-Ghoul (the Hill of Demons) that overlooks the valley,
property of the Melkite Church. Eventually the name of the hill was changed
to Jabal al-Nour (the Hill of Light).
At present, 4,500 students study at these institutions; they are Muslims and
Christians, and more than half of them are girls. A minority of the female
students wear traditional clothing and headscarves. According to Dr. Amal
Baraka, who will join the faculty of the university next year (at present he
teaches chemistry at the high school and the college of technology), the high
proportion of female students is reflected at all the Mar Elias institutions and
derives from the fact that many of the parents who are traditional and want
their daughters to acquire an education prefer to send them to study in an
`We are part of you'
Until the outbreak of the intifada in 2000, related Chacour, there was also a
class of Jewish 12th graders from Kiryat Shmona and Rosh Pina who
studied fashion and design. Today there is only one Jewish student there.
"We shall not rest until at our Arab-Israeli university Jews and Arabs study side by
side. And instead of thousands of Arab students from Israel going to Jordan to study,
we will work toward having students from Palestine, Jordan, Egypt, other Arab
countries and also from distant lands in Europe and America come to study here."
In his speech to the students and lecturers he addressed the members of the Council
for Higher Education and said: "Do not be afraid of our existence. Be afraid if and
when we cease to exist. We are part of you and it is our fate to live together. We are
part of this state and we want to contribute to the building of everything that brings
people closer. We believe that peace is built on justice. Justice is achieved by
reconciliation and cooperation and through mutual concessions. It would seem that
our Jewish brethren are in need of the return of the creative pioneering spirit. They
will not achieve this without us. We are here in order to march together, hand in hand,
to create an Arab Israeli society, in order to bring back the smile and the hope to this
country, to the Middle East and to the whole world."
To the question of whether, given his words and his vision, he will not be considered
to have his head in the clouds, the bishop replied: "I'm not living in the clouds. I am
aware of the violence and the inferno in which the people in Israel and Palestine are
living, and of the fears and the sense of despair. I want us to succeed where the
political leaderships, both here and there, have failed. We will educate, especially the
younger generation, to a different way of life, to love of human beings as human
In a large oil painting on one of the walls of the main campus building, the artist, a
foreign volunteer, quotes among other things a verse from Genesis (26:29): "That
thou wilt do us no hurt, as we have not touched thee, and as we have done unto thee
nothing but good, and have sent thee away in peace: Thou art now the blessed of the
Why did the university at Ibillin choose to be a branch of a foreign university?
According to the Dean, Dr. Raed Mualem, who headed the founding team, "When we
set out a few years ago, we approached all the universities in Israel - some of which
have branches in various places in the country - and asked for their agreement that we
operate as a branch of theirs. They rejected us, and we had to look abroad. The choice
was Indianapolis University, which is considered one of the best universities in the
world, because of the large number of foreign students who study there, and it also
has two branches outside the United States, in Greece and in Cyprus."
Upon beginning his work on the strategic establishment team of the Ibillin campus,
Dr. Mualem enlisted the help of his classmate at Tel Aviv University, Dr. Zvi Sever,
who played an important role in the contacts with government offices and especially
the Council for Higher Education. About 10 years ago, Dr. Sever, a zoologist, traded
zoology for education, and among other things served as the bureau chief of the
former director general of the Education Ministry, Shlomit Amichai.
Dr. Sever rejected the argument by those who opposed the idea of establishing an
Arab university in Israel, who said that there was no need for such a university. "This
argument is ridiculous. Arabs constitute about 20 percent of the population of the
country, while their proportion at the universities comes to only 8 percent. Within a
few years the reality that will develop will prove that we were right."
Both Mualem and Sever note the full cooperation of the Council for Higher Education
in the process that took nearly three years. Among other things, they noted that the
founding team wrote more than 250 documents, replies to questionnaires and letters to
the Council. Under the license, this year three departments will operate at the Ibillin
campus - computer science, environmental science and communications studies.
Alongside computer department head Ziyad Hanna, Prof. Nade Bshoti will serve as
academic advisor; alongside the head of the environmental science department, Dr.
Raed Sharesh, will be Prof. Amiram Shkolnik; heading the communications studies
department is Dr. Atef Salama of Taibeh, who in the past held similar positions at Bir
Zeit and An Najah universities. At present, about one-quarter of the faculty consists of
Jewish lecturers who teach at universities in Israel and abroad. Chacour notes that
there was a great response from figures from all walks of life willing to be on the
university's board of trustees.
"Two values will guide our activities," Dr. Mualem told the new students at the
opening ceremony. "Respect for the individual and his human rights and academic
The language of instruction and the required textbooks will be English, and therefore
efforts will be made to improve the level of the students' knowledge of the English
language. Auxiliary texts will be in Arabic and Hebrew. At the end of the program,
the students will be awarded B.Sc. degrees in the three subjects, which will be
recognized in Israel and the United States. The operating budget for the first year will
be $1 million, which came mainly from a worldwide fund-raising campaign run by
Chacour. Plans call for adding three new departments of study each year, with the aim
of operating 15 departments at the end of five years with the approval of the Council
for Higher Education. Later, the founders hope, they will also be able to award
master's degrees and doctorates and become an independent university.
According to Chacour, "Among the departments that are planned for the future, we
will teach the Arabic language in Arabic and not in Hebrew, as is the case in the
universities in Israel. This is embarrassing, and as a result the mother tongue of many
of the Arab university graduates in Israel is meager and faulty. Language is not only a
means of expression, but also identity and belonging."
Among the many celebrants at the campus on opening day was Naama Abrahami of
Ram On, a moshav in the Galilee. By profession, Abrahami is a regional and city
planner; she was recruited into her present role by Dr. Sever. She felt that her
colleagues on the founding team were "making history." Abrahami noted the feeling
of mutual openness among both faculty members and students and expressed
satisfaction at being "a partner to a move of great importance, not only for the Arab
community in Israel but also for the entire population of the State of Israel."