Celebrating Independence Day with Higher Education

Prof. Mouna Maroun with the author

Israel’s Declaration of Independence has something for everyone. With my own focus on social impact, I’m intrigued by its call on the country’s minority populations to “participate in the upbuilding of the State.” Have they? Better yet: Have they had the opportunity?

I can think of no better place to look for the answer than in the field of higher education, where societies presumably hope to cultivate the next generation of leaders. The trick, of course, is getting there first. As a product of America’s working class, I personally know what that crucial step can entail.

The recent appointment of Prof. Mouna Maroun as Haifa University’s incoming rector, the first Israeli Arab to fill that role at any of the country’s higher education institutions, is perhaps the most prominent illustration of the fact that minorities are definitely “upbuilding the State.” Nobody understands the importance of this accomplishment better than Prof. Maroun herself.

I first made her acquaintance when my social impact policy unit at Israel’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs was taking its baby steps five years ago. Admittedly, the fact that Prof. Maroun led Haifa University’s Neurobiology Department interested me far less than her position as head of the Council for Higher Education’s (CHE) steering committee responsible for accelerating minority students’ academic integration.

We’ve interacted many times since then, including at Prof. Maroun’s predominantly Druze township on Mount Carmel where her smaller Christian community also prospers. She was the village’s first woman to earn a PhD.

A role model for young Arabs, Prof. Maroun strongly believes in their ability to succeed in higher education and subsequently thrive in the job market. Excellence is the key; on that, she definitely will not compromise.

Prof. Maroun can be proud of her role in CHE’s impressive activities since embarking on its first five-year program. That was back in 2016, as part of the Israel Government’s first comprehensive, long-term plan for the economic development of the Arab community (implementation of the second program, which runs through 2026, is in full swing).

The numbers speak for themselves. While in 2010 Arabs comprised 10% of bachelor’s degree students, today their percentage is almost 20% (reflective of their proportion of the entire population). The percentage of master’s degree students, which stood at 6.5% in 2012, is now approaching that high-end figure as well.

Naturally, the government-funded CHE has not accomplished this alone. Like many of Israel’s social-equality achievements, this one is also a result of the public-private partnership. For while the decision to start preparing Arab students for higher education from the 10th grade was indeed that of the government, somebody had to do the heavy lifting at the grassroots level.

That somebody has been Aluma, a non-profit. Focusing its activities on young adults, the organization’s declared goal is “to facilitate social changes that can build resilience in Israeli society, by strengthening the sense of belonging and Israeli identity within individuals and communities.”

To help with the academic integration of Israel’s minorities, the NGO conducts the Rowad (“More”) program in partnership with CHE. Aluma’s Nagham Abu Harfa Samara, who believes that “higher education is the bridge to integrating young Arabs in society,” runs the program with energy and optimism.

The jump in Arab student enrollment is not only an accomplishment for minority empowerment, it is also a victory for gender equality: 74% of all Arab students are women.

According to Samara, many of these women are now landing senior academic staff positions, as success in their studies carries them beyond just obtaining a degree. On the flipside: Rowad has necessarily had to increase its focus on Arab men, an effort which she says requires out-of-the-box thinking to overcome cultural norms.

While Prof. Maroun moved on from CHE a while ago, the steering committee’s important work continues under her successor, Prof. Fuad Fares. A veteran CHE member from Israel’s Druze community, he too is at Haifa University.

CHE’s new five-year plan envisions increasing minority student enrollment by an additional 2.4% for bachelor’s degrees, 5.1% for master’s degrees and 7.8% for PhDs (Arabs comprised 8% of Israel’s PhD candidates in 2021). The hope is to accomplish all this by the 2027-28 academic year.

Samara says that the Rowad program “testifies to the genuine understanding of Israel’s government, as represented by CHE, regarding the necessity of making higher education accessible to the Arab community.”

With those words, she answers “yes” to the question of whether Israel’s Arab community is participating in the “upbuilding of the State,” as envisioned by our Declaration of Independence 76 years ago.

That both the State of Israel and its Arab citizens want this outcome is in itself a great reason for celebration. Happy Independence Day!

About the Author
A 35-year Israeli diplomacy veteran, Ambassador Yehuda Yaakov has directed the Foreign Ministry's Social Impact Policy unit since launching it in 2019; previously, he served as Consul General in Boston after receiving the Director General's Award as part of the "Iran Team." Yaakov has also served as board member of an NGO promoting Israeli-Ethiopian excellence. Raised in a NYC housing project, he began his career reporting about social justice issues. Active on LinkedIn and "X" (@YehudaYa).
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