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The Academic Boycott vs. the Truth of Islamic Education in Israel

1:52 PM, Jun 14, 2011 • By STEPHEN SCHWARTZ
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Baqa al-Gharbiyya, Israel—A high-level academic conference on Sufism, the spiritual tradition in Islam, was held here on May 24-25, and it offered lessons apart from any involving religion. For anyone unacquainted with actual life in Israel – and for academics lured by demagogic calls for a boycott of the Jewish state – the conference might have provided a revelation of often-unspoken truths.

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The “First International Conference—In The Footsteps of Sufism: History, Trends and Praxis” was hosted by the Al-Qasemi Academy, an institution that, in the words of an enthusiastic student, “hopes to be the first Muslim university in Israel.” Baqa al-Gharbiyya, where it is located, is a town divided by the “green line” between Israel and the West Bank, and the school is on the Israeli side of the frontier. With about 2,000 students, mainly women, it receives 35 percent of its budget from the Israeli Ministry of Education and the rest from private donors. Al-Qasemi (with the accent on the first syllable in “Qasemi”) is planning a second campus, to award bachelor’s degrees in technology, but has yet to develop a budget for it.

Here a digression on Israel’s minorities may be in order for anyone surprised that the Israeli authorities would subsidize an Islamic school. Nearly 17 percent of Israel’s population is Muslim. Overwhelmingly Arabs, these Israeli citizens number about 1.6 million in a total population of 7.5 million. They carry Israeli passports and have secular educational opportunities equal to those of their Jewish neighbors. Most are bilingual in Arabic and Hebrew. They have enjoyed full voting rights since the Israeli parliament, the Knesset, first met in 1949. It is sometimes pointed out that Israeli Arabs have more political rights than Arabs anywhere else in the Middle East, with the exception of Iraq since the mid-2000s.

The non-Jewish population of Israel also includes Arab Christians (2 percent of the total census) and Druzes (1.7 percent). Israeli Arabs are not required to serve in the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF), though some volunteer for duty as soldiers, and more perform “national service,” usually involving tasks like community administration, for which they receive the same salary and benefits as soldiers. Another 170,000 or so Israelis are itinerant Bedouins, who have their own dialect and perceive themselves as victims of discrimination by other Arabs; some of them, too, volunteer for the IDF. Israeli Arabs are employed throughout the civil administrative apparatus.

The Druzes, who number around 100,000 (except for 20,000 in the Golan Heights who claim to be Syrians) are required to serve in the IDF. Druzes follow an esoteric faith derived from Shiism, but now consider themselves outside Islam. They are tough mountain people and hardy fighters.

The Al-Qasemi complex was founded in 1967 and the school in 1989, with only 40 students, by a Sufi sheikh, Husni al-Din al-Qasemi, and his four sons. The last of these, sheikh Abd al-Rauf al-Qasemi, now serves as its spiritual guide. Its current, large installation is typically crowded with a cross section of Israeli Muslims: clerics of dignified mien; women teachers and students, some wearing the headscarf (hijab), some without (the niqab, or face veil, is nowhere in sight). The school is affiliated with the Khalwati Sufi order, which is so named because its adherents engage in “khalwa” or periodic seclusion from the outside world. Khalwati Sufis are found in all Muslim countries.

According to a statement of its vision, the school maintains an Arabic-language program that “seeks to make Arabic compatible with the needs of sciences, literature, and arts … [and] recent developments [in] contemporary culture and modern life.” The means to realize this project include publication of a new dictionary of contemporary Arabic, production of an encyclopedia of modern Palestinian literature, and publication of an academic journal, Al-Majma (“Collection”), with articles in Arabic and English.

Al-Qasemi’s first academic conference on Sufism was remarkable for the range of participants. Jews and Muslims who study and teach in the country’s “Jewish” universities—the Hebrew University of Jerusalem (HUJ), Bar-Ilan University, the University of Haifa—were joined by Westerners of Christian background. All the papers presented, to an audience of about 100 each day, were serious and significant. Muslim academics spoke on the history of Khalwati Sufism, the lives and works of notable Sufis, and Arab poetry.

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