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Islamic College Funded by Jews

The school aims to promote a moderate vision of Islam, but it faces deep skepticism from Jews and Muslims

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Students Sujud Watan, left, and Rana Ghazail in the Al-Qasemi College library. (Oren Kessler)

In a village straddling Israel and the West Bank, an Arab college is trying to walk the tightest of ropes: reinterpreting the study of Islam for the modern age, and doing so on the dime of the Jewish state.

Al-Qasemi Academic College— which trains both teachers and imams—prides itself on being a pioneer in the instruction of moderate Islam, and it shows encouraging signs to that end. Its president, Mohammad Essawi, is publicly committed to the modernization of religious study, the advancement of Israel’s Arabs, and bridging the gap between them and the country’s Jewish majority.

“We have a unique approach to Islamic studies that includes philosophy, criticism, and even comparative religion,” Essawi said in a rare interview. “Our vision is human-resource development of the Arab minority in Israel. That means highlighting the values of freedom of choice, human rights—especially equality between women and men—and the celebration and creation of knowledge.”

Essawi’s objective is commendable, but the 58-year-old administrator’s task is immense, and challenges are coming at him from three angles. Talks with college administrators and students during recent trips revealed that Al-Qasemi continues to struggle with the more toxic afflictions still poisoning Arab and Muslim society: animus toward Jews, limitations on women’s rights, and an unsettling readiness to countenance terrorism. Then there’s the fact that the school is funded by the Israeli Education Ministry and an American Jewish donor, which inevitably has led to suspicion on the part of some Muslims. And for all of Essawi’s efforts, some of the college’s Jewish neighbors are unwilling to give his college’s attempt at teaching moderate Islam the benefit of the doubt.

“They’re a fifth column,” said one neighbor, the owner of a roadside falafel stand, referring to Israeli Arabs in general. “They’re Amalek.”


Al-Qasemi lies in the village of Baqa, roughly halfway between Haifa and Tel Aviv, just east of the city of Hadera. The community’s western portion—Baqa al-Gharbiya—is located within Israel and is home to the college and the bulk of the community’s 30,000 people. Across the West Bank separation fence is the village’s eastern portion, Baqa al-Sharqiya, situated within Palestinian Authority jurisdiction.

The college was established in 1989 by local Sufi orders as an “institute of Sharia and Islamic studies” for training imams. Sufism is commonly depicted as a quietest, apolitical strand of Islam dedicated to uncovering the mystical elements of the creed. But like any faith movement, Sufism too has competing streams, some more palatable to Western audiences than others.

Sufi influence on the school’s operation remains substantial. A handful of bearded, cap-and-robe-clad Sufi sheikhs roams its halls, and portraits of the college’s Sufi founders dot its library—the largest Arabic collection in Israel. Abd Al-Rauf Al-Qawasmi, a respected Sufi leader from Hebron, heads the school’s board of trustees, and twice a month Israeli military authorities let him travel from the West Bank to Baqa to attend to college business.

Over the years, the school has expanded its original religious mandate, and today it functions largely as a teachers college: Its 3,500 students (1,500 of them full-time, and most of them female) pursue bachelors and masters degrees in everything from English literature to mathematics to early-childhood care. Still, administrators say Islamic studies remain Al-Qasemi’s flagship.

“We believe it’s most important to make the change not where it’s easiest, but where it’s the most challenging, and that’s Islamic studies,” said Margalit Ziv, the college’s Jewish head of graduate studies and head of its early-childhood center, Bidayat (Arabic for “Beginnings”). “Our vision is to try to integrate two sets of values. One set stems from the Islamic tradition, and the other from the more universal values—or Western ones, depending on your perspective—of democracy and equality,” she said. If its hiring choices are any indication, the school is practicing what it preaches. “It’s no small matter,” said Ziv, “that in an Arab college there’s someone like me—a woman and a Jew—in charge of graduate studies.”

The lion’s share of Al-Qasemi’s funding—1.5 million shekels a year as of 2009, the last year for which data are available—comes from the Education Ministry, whose representatives are convinced the college’s heart is in the right place. “The ministry funds teacher certification,” a spokesman told me, and “study of Islam and Sharia are part of the curriculum in the Arab sector. [Al-Qasemi’s] curriculum has been examined by both the ministry and the Council for Higher Education and found to contain no incitement-related material.” What’s more, the bulk of funding for Bidayat—hundreds of thousands of dollars annually—comes from a San Diego-based Jewish-American philanthropist named Robert Price, the cofounder of Price Club, a defunct nationwide warehouse club chain that in the 1990s merged with, and was later subsumed by, Costco.

Ziv said it’s disappointing, but not surprising, that no Arab donors from Israel or abroad have contributed to Bidayat or to Al-Qasemi itself. “It’s absurd that our only donor is an American Jew,” she conceded. That unfortunate fact, Essawi explained, is just one symptom of more serious handicaps holding back Israeli-Arab society. By phone, the media-shy president told me he believes Israeli Arabs face two main barriers to development and prosperity.

“One barrier is internal and the other external. Internally, there is the status of women and the Arab community’s organization, which is still based on tribal culture and the extended family,” said Essawi, who hails from the Galilee village of Kafr Manda. “Externally, there is the unequal distribution of resources between Jews and Arabs in Israel. We at the college have a commitment both to our community and to greater Israeli society. We see ourselves as a bridge between Israelis and Palestinians, and also between Arabs and Jews within Israel.”

Within Israel, those relations have seen peaks, like the Oslo Accords, and troughs, like the Second Intifada. In the years since those seminal events, Israel’s Jews and Arabs have reverted to a suspicious parallel existence. A 2010 University of Haifa poll found that two-thirds of Israeli Arabs rejected Israel as a Jewish state, while 30 percent opposed its existence under any terms at all. Many Israeli Jews are similarly less than enamored of their Semitic cousins: A Tel Aviv University survey the same year found half of Jewish-Israeli high-school students believe Arabs should not be entitled to the same rights as Jews, nor allowed to run for Knesset seats. For students in religious schools, the figures were higher still.

Foreign Minister Avigdor Lieberman of the right-wing Yisrael Beiteinu party is an advocate of transfer, not of Israeli Arabs themselves, but of the Israeli-Palestinian border in any future two-state solution. And leaked memoranda from a decade of Middle East peace negotiations—the so-called “Palestine Papers”—revealed Baqa al-Gharbiya as one of the locales considered for transfer to the putative state of Palestine. If Lieberman has his way, Al-Qasemi may someday find itself in the newborn state of Palestine.

Wassim Younis, the frenetic college spokesman, tried to explain the fragility of Israel’s Arab-Jewish relations with a clumsy attempt at humor. “Some students tell me they want to throw the Jews into the sea,” he told me. “ ‘OK,’ I tell them, ‘Why and how? What about babies? Those poor guys can’t even swim.’ ”

“It’s very difficult for Arabs, who live in a conservative society, to accept criticism,” said Younis. The Quran, Younis argued, never calls for hatred of Jews. “One must read the book in context,” he said. “Muslims and Jews enjoy good relations in it, except in moments of conflict.”

Later, Younis, who is from the nearby village of Arara, told me about a history class that dealt with the Holocaust. “It was hard for the students to comprehend that Jewish victims in the Holocaust were not our enemy,” he said. “It was very difficult for them to admit what they may have known to be true: that Jews too were victims.”

Talks with students echoed the same cognitive dissonance. Sujud Watan is an early-childcare student from Baqa’s twin village of Jatt. Asked about her identity, Watan expressed the anxious ambivalence typical of many of her Israeli Arab peers. “I’m just an Arab Muslim,” the 21-year-old, dressed in a hijab and jilbab overgarment, offered shyly in English. “Obviously I live in Israel, but I’m also Palestinian. I just want to be good with God. I know I live in Israel, and my roots are Palestinian, but I prefer to just say I’m an Arab Muslim.” The hijab, Watan insisted, is a “must” for Islam. “When I wear it, I feel like a queen,” she said.

Her friend Rana Ghazail was bareheaded, wearing a pink T-shirt and black tights. “I can’t say I’m either with one side or against the other,” said Ghazail, also 21, in Hebrew. “For example, there are some who use the word ‘terrorist,’ but I don’t know …” she said, trailing off. Ghazail admitted to pangs of guilt for not covering up. “I sometimes wonder why I don’t wear the hijab,” she said. “I believe very much in my religion. I know have to do it—it’s a must.”

Even Younis, heretofore keen to present himself as a consummate progressive, agreed the question of the hijab is a nonstarter. “The Quran says a woman must cover,” he observed flatly. “There’s nothing to interpret.”

Driving out of Baqa, on a narrow highway flanked by Arab villages and moshavim, I stopped at an improbably situated falafel stand. The Jewish proprietor—an intense, newly religious redhead in his 40s—asked where I had traveled from.


“What for?” he said. “The Arabs, they’re all the same.”


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The final decades of the 20th century witnessed another Holocaust – an Islamic one,
in which millions have been and continue to be shot, decapitated and stoned to
death; in which people have been slaughtered and displaced by Islamic states,
political Islamic movements and Islamic terrorists in Iran, the Sudan, Afghanistan, Algeria, Egypt, Nigeria, Central Asia, and now in America. The robe, turban and Quran continue to victimize people. Any voice of dissent or freedom has been silenced on the spot. The oppression maintained by Islamic movements primarily takes the form of opposition to the freedom of women, by crushing women’s civil liberties, by curtailing freedom of expression in the cultural and personal domains, by enforcing brutal laws and traditions, and by the mass killing of people from young children to the elderly.

Essentially, Islam is a set of beliefs and rules that militate against human prosperity,
happiness, welfare, freedom, equality and knowledge. Islam and a full human life are contradictory concepts, opposed to each other. Islam under any kind of interpretation is and always has been a strong force against secularism, modernism, egalitarianism and women’s rights. Political Islam, however, is a political movement that has come to the fore against secular and progressive movements for liberation, and against cultural and intellectual advances. Violence and disregard for human dignity are inherent in the manifestos of political Islamic groups.

After political Islam took power in Iran, creating an Islamic Republic, this movement came out of the margins in other Middle Eastern countries. It was in Iran that political Islam first organized itself into a government and thus turned into a considerable force in the region. In Iran, under an Islamic state, violence has had another dimension: one that is based on Islam. The very statement that an Islamic Republic exists somewhere means that brutal violence exists in it. The mere fact that people are forced to abide by laws based on something some god is believed to have said somewhere, or that some prophet has said, itself represents a form of violence. If anyone protests against such laws, they are subject to punishment and suppression.
Islam means the worst and the most ferocious kind of violence. Iran is the most transparent picture of what Islam is capable of.

Since 1979, a hundred thousand men, women and children have been executed in the name of Allah.

Thousands of men and women throughout the country looked for the names of lovers, husbands, wives, friends, daughters, sons, colleagues and students in
newspapers which daily announced the names of the executed. Days, when the
soldiers of Allah attacked bookstores and publishing houses and burned books.
Days, of armed attacks on universities, killing students all over the country.
Weeks and months, of bloody attacks on workers’ strikes and demonstrations.
Years of assassination of opponents inside and outside Iran. Years of suppression and brutal murder of atheists, freethinkers, socialists, trade union leaders and
activists, Marxists, Bahais, women who resisted the misery of hijab and the
rule of sexual apartheid, and many others who were none of these, who were
arrested in the streets and then executed simply because of their innocent
non-Islamic appearance. And to the hundred thousand murdered in Iran must be added the millions who have died in Algeria, the Sudan, Afghanistan,
Pakistan and elsewhere. A silent holocaust about which the civilized world does nothing.

Verses of the Quran about nonbelievers were played in the torture chambers. The voice reading the Quran was mixed with prisoners cries of pain from lashes and other
brutal forms of torture. They raped women political prisoners for the sake of
Allah and in expectation of his reward. They prayed before raping them.
Thousands were shot to death by execution squads while Quranic verses were
recited. Prisoners were awakened every day at dawn to the sound of gunshots
aimed at their friends and cellmates. From the numbers of shots one could work
out how many had been murdered that day. The killing machine did not stop for a
minute. The fathers and mothers, husbands and wives who received the bloody
clothes of their loved ones had to pay for the bullets. They created an Islamic
Auschwitz. Many of the best, the most passionate and progressive people were
massacred. The dimensions of the horror are beyond imagining.

During those years, millions of children were brainwashed and manipulated. The crimes committed by the Islamic Republic of Iran and political Islam in the region are
comparable to the crimes committed by Fascism in the 1930s and early 1940s, and
to the genocide in Rwanda and Indonesia.

Yet these are events that humanity around the world has been largely unaware of. A
Holocaust which, if humanity knew of its dimensions and intensity, would certainly cause it to weep. With the downfall of such regimes, the world will finally be given an opportunity to know the truth – victims will speak out, prisons and torture chambers will be exposed, torturers will make heart-wrenching confessions, Islamic prosecutors and judges will reveal what they did to their victims behind prison walls. Then people all over the world will see what a despicable phenomenon Islam is. They will finally find out the truth about those governments that backed the Islamic movements and the Western mainstream media that deliberately blocked people’s access to the truth.

    I hear a lot of kvetching and no solutions. What do you want them to convert back to Judaism or become Christians? Real people coming together make a real difference. My West bank friend now has Jewish friends. My Israeli friend supports peaceful organizations that show that it is the regimes not the people that hate. No government is guiltless in the eyes of Hashem.

      Yeshua Ha’Mashiach

      He is AL HAQ, John 14:6

      He is AL BAETH, John11:25-26.

      He is AL AWAL & AL AKHER, Isaiah 41:4; Revelation 22:13, 16.

      He is AL MALEK, Revelation 17:14.

      He is AL NUR, John 8:12

      He is the SON OF GOD.

      He is your LORD & SAVIOR.


      MY LORD & MY GOD!

      Jesus is Allah according to the Koran

      This is a very important issue and everybody should know this fact. I studied the Koran and the Hadith and I will discuss this subject according to the Koran and the Bible and we will find the truth that “Jesus is Allah according to the Koran.”

      Muslims always love to ask questions but sorry to say they don’t want to listen to your answers. Muslims always think they are right and you are wrong! (Which is false). One question Muslims always ask,

      “Where did Jesus say He was God?”

      I am sure many of you have heard this question.

      Now I will show the Muslims in a very special way how we can prove to them that Jesus said, ‘I am God’ from their book and our book at the same time.

      The God of Islam ‘Allah’ has 99 names. Each name is equal to the other one. Which means there is no difference between the name of Allah or any of those 99 names. Allah is one of them and He is equal to all those names. No difference, but equal. So if Jesus claimed any of those names it means that Jesus is saying to Muslims that ‘He is the God of Muslims

      There are so many verses in the Bible but I picked only few verses from the Bible.

      I challenge all the Muslims on this Earth NOT to run away from this truth. Now my question to them is, ’How can Muslims deny this truth?’

      One of the names of God in Islam is AL-HAQ. Which means in Arabic ‘The Truth.’

      Did Jesus say in the Bible, “I am the Truth”?

      Yes. He said on John 14;9,

      “I am the way and the truth and the life. No-one comes to the Father except through Me.”

      Jesus said, “He is the Truth.” Always remember this truth.

      Can any Muslim deny that another name for Allah is, “The Truth” (AL-HAQ)?

      No. No one can deny this fact. Because the Truth in Islam is ‘Allah’. AL is the Arabic word and its English meaning is ‘you talking about whom.’ HAQ means Truth which in English we say ‘I am the Truth’. In Arabic I am the ‘AL-HAQ’. Can any Muslim deny that?

      Another name for God of Islam is AL-BAETH, The Resurrection.

      Did Jesus say in the Gospel, “I am the Resurrection?” Yes.

      In the Gospel of John 11;25-26 Jesus says,

      “I am the Resurrection and the life. He who believes in Me will live, even though he dies; and who-ever lives and believes in Me will never die.”

      When the Muslims God ‘Allah’ is called ‘AL-BEATH’, which means resurrection, then it is clearly proven to all of us that Jesus Himself is Allah as Jesus says, “I am the Resurrection.”

      In Arabic “I am the ‘AL-BEATH.’ There is not a single Muslim on this Earth can deny that fact. If any Muslim denies this truth then he/she denies/reject ‘Allah’ as well because they deny the 99 names of Allah.

      The God of Islam has two other names. “AL-AWAL” and “AL-AKHER.”

      In English we say, “I am the Alfa – I am the Omega.” (I am the First and I am the Last.)

      Isaiah 41:4 says, “I, the Lord-am the first of them and with the last-I am He.”

      Also the book of Revelation 22: 13 says,

      “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.”

      Jesus is the AL-AWAL and Jesus is the AL-AKHER.

      Muslims there are no options or excuses to refuse this truth. You have to accept Jesus as your “Allah.”

      One of the names of the God of Islam ’Allah’ is the kings of King.

      In Arabic it is ‘AL-MALEK.’

      The book of Revelation says in chapter 17 verse 14,

      “They will make war against the Lamb, but the Lamb will overcome them because He is Lord of lords and King of kings-and with Him will be His called, chosen and faithful followers.”

      One of the names of the God of Islam ‘Allah’ is the Guide-“AL-HADI.” The English meaning is The Door/Gate.

      Did Jesus say that He is the Gate? Yes. In the Gospel of John 10:9 tells us Jesus said,

      “I am the gate; whoever enters through Me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture.”

      One of the names of the God of Islam ‘Allah’ is The Light, which in Arabic is “Al-NUR.”

      Did Jesus say that He is the Light or He is the AL-NUR? Yes.

      In the Gospel of John 8:12 says,

      “I am the Light of the world. He who follows Me shall not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

      All these verses clearly prove that Jesus is Allah according to the Koran and no Muslim can deny this truth. (For readers references please check the Gospel of John. Ch 10. Read all of John’s Gospel.

julis123 says:

Interesting article. I wonder if they teach about the 850,000 Jews ethnically cleansed from Arab lands?

ARaphael says:

I’m glad to see this interesting and nuanced story in Tablet, but I’ve got to call the writer out on a couple of items – one minor and one major.

First – and relatively minor – is the assertion that Al-Qasemi College operates “on the dime of the Jewish state.” You’ll get no argument from me identifying Israel as a Jewish state (actually, a Jewish and democratic state with full rights for its Arab citizens, as guaranteed by Israel’s Declaration of Independence). But I will argue about whose “dime” it is. The “dime” supporting the college comes from the tax revenues of every Israeli taxpayer – Jewish and Arab alike – and therefore both Jewish and Arab citizens have every right to expect that the state will support each
community’s institutions. The “dime” here is not an act of Jewish largesse; it is a recognition of the rights of citizenship and paying taxes.

Second – and more serious – is the egregious misrepresentation of the data from the Haifa University study cited in the article, which claims that 2/3 of Israeli Arabs
reject Israel as a Jewish state and 30% oppose its existence under any circumstances. This is a perversion of the data from Professor Sammy Smooha’s
study that is the source for the Tablet article, and is in fact hyperlinked to the article itself! As the linked YNet article describes, 57% of Israeli Arabs support the notion of a Jewish and democratic state of Israel with full civil rights for its Arab citizens (nowhere near the 1/3 cited in Tablet), and only 19% deny the right of Israel’s existence. As the late US Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan once famously said, “you’re entitled to your own opinion but you’re not entitled to your own facts.”

JehudahBenIsrael says:

One is not sure of the outcome of this new institution and how it may or may not take a role in the Muslim-Arab world, local and regional, to undermine Israel’s very existence.

But, we have had experiences, too many of them, from which we may learn: When Israel captured the now disputed territories of Samaria, Judea and Gaza during the defensive June 1967 Six-Day War there were no academic institutions there at all.

All the institutions that have come about since were established with Israel’s authorization and even assistance. And, all of them, without a single exception, have become active centers of anti-Israel activity, legal and at least as often illegal.

Who and how are we, Jews, within and without Israel, are going to be guaranteed that this new institution will not be added to the rest…??

And, why is it, that for the sake of peaceful coexistence between Arab and Jew, Arabs – be they Muslims, Christians or Druse – shouldn’t be encouraged, as they have to date, to take an active role in the academic institutions that exit in Israel..??

Why, in other words, promote segregation where one doesn’t exist? Is this the “progressive” way of promoting peace between these two peoples, i.e. Arabs and Jews…??


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Islamic College Funded by Jews

The school aims to promote a moderate vision of Islam, but it faces deep skepticism from Jews and Muslims