On July 12th, 2010, I took a group of 35 North American rabbis who were studying at the Hartman Institute in Jerusalem this summer on a visit to Al Qasemi Academy in the Israeli Arab town of Baka El Gharbiyah, in the Triangle area of Central Israel. We met with various people from the administration and faculty of this unique teacher-training college, the only one in Israel that exists in an Israeli Arab town.
I have visited the Al Qasemi Academy many times during the past 19 years, and am well aware of their special approach to teacher-training, but this was the first opportunity to be exposed to such a modern and progressive approach to education among Arabs in Israel for most of the rabbis from abroad (the group included Reform, Conservative and Modern Orthodox rabbis).
According to Mr. Owni Manasreh, one of 11 faculty members who teaches Islamic Studies at the college, the lecturers at this institution are teaching the kind of Islam which will offer their students answers to the extremists. He views Islamic fundamentalist extremism as a serious danger to humanity, and he is interpreting Islam – based on the Koran, the Hadith and other sources—in ways that are open and pluralistic. Moreover, he and his colleagues are struggling intensively with issues of modernity. “We teach our students the positive aspects of Islam and we enable them to handle questions of the twenty-first century,” he told the rabbis.
In addition Mr. Manasreh, explained about the Sufi movement, of which he is a member. In this region, the Sufi movement is about 100 years old. Not only do they make people closer to God, but they focus on many aspects of everyday life. In this way, Sufi teachings are highly relevant to the real lives of the students at this college.
We also heard from Ms. Amani Makaldi and Mr. Wassim Yunis, of the Public Relations Department of Al Qasemi. They told us that 95% of the students at the college are women. More and more women in the Arab sector in Israel are going into education, but they can’t all find jobs. The college treats them with utmost respect, encouraging Muslim religiosity without forcing it upon any one. Moreover, they are also teaching education courses in “critical thinking” which is a way for them to enable their teachers-in-training to cope more reasonably with the modern world in which they live, albeit, in a traditionally conservative community.
Furthermore, we learned that the Al Qasemi Academy seeks to become the first Israeli Arab university in the state of Israel. Based on their excellent beginnings and their serious educational and organizational strategic planning, it seems to me that this dream could certainly become a reality in the not too distant future. They have the will, the drive, the knowledge and the commitment to make this happen.
All of the visiting rabbis came away with a positive impression of the efforts of this very special institution of higher education in Israel in training members of the Arab community in Israel towards improving the future of education in their schools and communities. Most of them had no idea that such an institution exists in Israeli society.
For more about the Al Qasemi Academy, see their website at http://www.qsm.ac.il/