On the map, thanks to the road

by By Daniel Ben Simon | Haaretz | 25 May 2003

At lunchtime, Yigal Cohen- Orgad ran into the Middle East expert Alex Bligh in the cafeteria of the department of architecture. Bligh, who lectures at the college, pulled out the current issue of the international journal Israel Affairs, which is devoted to "the Palestinian Arabs" and which Bligh edited.

"It came out this morning," he said, holding the periodical in front of Cohen-Orgad's nose. "You can still smell the print." The smell was of no interest to Cohen-Orgad. "Is the name of the college mentioned?" he asked.

Bligh leafed through the journal until he came to one of his articles, at the end of which he was identified as a lecturer from the Academic College of Judea and Samaria. Cohen-Orgad reacted to this like a child who has just received a gift. "That's the most important thing," he said, waving the periodical, "that the whole world should know that the College of Judea and Samaria is on the map."

This Wednesday, Cohen-Orgad will make this achievement known to the college's board of governors. The guests, from Israel and abroad, will discover that the college in the West Bank city of Ariel has taken another step toward its transformation into an integral element in the Israeli academic landscape. No one can ignore the fact that what began some 20 years ago as a minuscule point in the heart of Samaria has developed into the second largest Israeli college.

Cohen-Orgad, a former finance minister in the government of Yitzhak Shamir, and now the chairman of the college's executive and the moving spirit behind the institution's meteoric growth, will tell his guests that the two and a half years of the intifada did an important service to the college and enhanced its status. While Israelis and Palestinians fought each other and inflicted death and despair on themselves, the campus, which is located on the disputed ground, grew to dimensions it had not known during periods of calm. Some 7,000 students are currently enrolled at the college, 1,500 of whom joined in the past two years.

In that period, as Israel's economy kept regressing, splendid buildings went up on the campus, new departments were opened, sophisticated laboratories and classrooms were installed and student services were expanded. Even the number of Arab students increased, to 350.

Nine of every 10 students at the college live in sovereign Israel. They cross the 1967 Green Line every day, uninterrupted, without ideological inhibitions and with no qualms of conscience. Many of them say they chose the college because it is close to home thanks to the convenient access highway, because of the high level of studies or due to the pleasant social atmosphere. In conversations with students, the terms "occupation," "occupied territory" or even "territories" were rarely mentioned. None of the students had any doubts about the future of the college, none of them raised any questions.

"At first I couldn't decide between engineering at the Technion [Israel Institute of Technology in Haifa] or biology at Tel Aviv University," said Ravit, a student from Herzliya who is now completing her third year in the faculty of chemical engineering and biotechnology at the college. "I was accepted by both institutions but I decided to come to Ariel. The level here is higher and the faculty has an excellent reputation. Besides, it's very close to home. I get here on the Trans-Samaria Highway smoothly and without traffic jams. As soon as you get past the Ra'anana junction, it's a breeze."

A visit to the college prompts reflections about the sterile political discourse between left and right in Israel. There is hardly any discussion that doesn't address the Israeli control in the territories. However, while the debate about the future of the territories continues, Israeli rule continues to shape the reality at a dizzying pace, and it's a reality that will be difficult to alter.

Until two years ago, travel in the heart of Samaria was extremely dangerous. The Trans-Samaria Highway sliced through the occupied area and made life easier for the settlers who live on either side of it. The highway brought them closer to the center of Israel. There are no signs to indicate the transition from the sovereign state to the other place, nothing to point to the existence of the Green Line, no warning about the dangers lurking along the road, which passes close to Palestinian villages. Walls have been built to hide the oppressive presence of the villages.

After more than 35 years of rule, it is obvious that in certain sections of the center of the country, the Green Line has been blurred and even erased. It has been similarly erased from the consciousness of the young students here, who were born after the conquest of the new territories. Even students who expressed "left-wing" views totally rejected the possibility that Ariel or the college in which they are studying will be forced to pay the price of peace. "We mustn't give up this beautiful place," one of them said, pointing to the well-groomed suburban setting outside the window of his laboratory.

Next week's meeting of the board of governors will be marked by optimism. The goal of the college's initiators and supporters has been achieved almost in full: What began as an adventure became a fact of life. Cohen-Orgad says he learned an important lesson from the Labor Movement.

"In the last analysis, what is decisive is what's on the ground," he explained. "The history of Zionism is replete with struggles between those who talked and prattled and those who took action."

The college's expansion plan, he said, takes into account a student population of 25,000 in another 15 years. If this becomes the case, the institution in Ariel will become the largest college campus in the Land of Israel.

No right-wing image

The college's secret may lie in the fact that it has avoided clear-cut ideological identification. From the outset, it marketed itself as a college like any other. Surveys show that most of the students chose the Ariel campus for functional reasons: proximity, quality of studies, accessibility. The convenient terms of admission and the fact that the tuition fees are lower than in the universities and the private colleges were also considerations. A private college charges more than NIS 20,000 a year, whereas at the College of Judea and Samaria tuition is less than NIS 10,000.

The relatively low grades needed for admission to the college is perhaps the reason that students who failed to make the cut at the Technion or Hebrew University of Jerusalem can be found here. Many of them are from development towns, new immigrants from Ethiopia and the former Soviet Union, and there are even a few Palestinians from the territories.

On Monday morning of this week the cafeteria in the main building was abuzz with a cacophony of languages. Hebrew at one table, Russian at the next. Sitting at another table were three Israeli Arab students, Nassim from Baka al- Garbiyeh, Yusuf from Fureidis and Bashir from Shfaram - all of them studying civil engineering. Nassim and Bashir reside in the campus dorms. At the next table were female Arab students whose head coverings attested to their piousness.

The three engineering students don't care that the college is in the occupied territories or that they are studying in settler land. In the conversation they seemed to distinguish between an ideology they don't accept and the fact that they feel good on the campus. Bashir was surprised by the attitude he was shown when he asked for registration forms; Nassim felt from the first moment that the college wanted him and was even ready to make things easier for him so that he could study there.

"We were treated almost like Jewish students," said Yusuf, who studied for an engineering degree at the Technion before switching to Ariel. "The level here is very high. This is a settlement, but that doesn't bother me. We don't get into political affairs."

Nassim says that the college in Ariel was his first choice when he registered for academic studies. He consulted with friends, who praised the institution: "There is a very good atmosphere and I live in the dorms with Jews, even with religious Jews, and there are no problems," he related. "I feel very `ordinary.' I'm here during the week and I go home for the weekend. The highway is excellent and you get here quickly."

Bashir agrees: "My brother suggested that I go to Ariel and I don't regret it. From the moment I enrolled I was treated well and got the feeling that I was wanted here. `Come and we will help you,' they told me, meaning both in studies and with tuition. I took one year in their preparatory course and then I was admitted to the first year. I am very pleased. Everyone treats us well and helps us. Even people I don't know say `shalom' to me."

Yusuf noted that at the outset of the intifada he was afraid to travel on the main road, "but now you can travel quietly and everything is fine."

Irrelevant question

The college has a good reputation in the natural sciences, thanks to the faculty and the advanced laboratories. Sixty percent of the students at the college are studying for degrees in the natural sciences.

Prof. Shimon Shatzmiller stood next to the laboratory in which his students were conducting experiments as part of a course on kinetics and reactor planning. They wore white robes and transferred colored liquids from one beaker to another. One of the students is from the settlement of Eli, the other 21 are from the center of Israel. A few of them reside in the dorms, but most of them were about to leave for the center of Israel after completing the experiments, as though this were the most natural thing in the world.

"None of us did a political calculation when he came here to study," one of the students said. His colleagues nodded their heads in assent. "We have students from the whole political spectrum, from the extreme left to the extreme right, but that has nothing to do with studies."

This was confirmed by Alon Eliran, who is studying for a master's degree in electrical engineering and is also enrolled at Tel Aviv University. Eliran is a left-wing activist and a member of Ta'ayush, an organization that promotes Jewish-Arab cooperation. This week he was at the college to conduct an experiment under the guidance of Prof. Boris Kapilevich, a researcher from Novosibirsk, who settled in Israel about a year and a half ago. The two sat side by side in a small lab and followed the results of the experiment on a computer screen. Kapilevich lives in Rishon Letzion and Eliran, in the center of the country.

"It's not easy," Eliran said, describing the ideological dilemma in which he finds himself. "On the one hand, you are in favor of evacuating all the territories for peace, and on the other hand, you meet students here who are also for peace. I reached the conclusion that there is nothing better than firsthand experience and conversations with people who hold contrary views to yours. This is a very complex issue."

Shatzmiller, 61, taught at Tel Aviv University. Five years ago he decided to teach at the college in the territories. A few months ago he took a more definitive step in the same direction and move to Ariel with his family from Nahariya, the coastal town just south of the border with Lebanon.

"I came for the professional challenge, because we started a process of creating something from zero," he explained. "There were some abandoned industrial structures here. Now there are modern labs in chemical and biological engineering, labs that meet international safety standards."

"I want you to know that I am not a great ideologue but an ordinary person," he added a few minutes later. "I am trying to pass on the experience I have accumulated from academia in Israel and abroad. My parents came to the country from Europe in the 1930s. My father was an engineer and I am continuing his path and the path of Israel. This is how the country was built. Of course, we have to get along with the Arabs so that they will live and we will live, and that is what will happen in the end. I have Arab students from Israel and from the territories, and everyone treats everyone
else in a perfectly normal way."

Shatzmiller adds that he learned something else, too: "None of the political plans are worth a thing, because it is actions that decide, and actions here speak louder than a thousand words."

A few guests were standing at the entrance to the laboratory of Prof. Zvi Shiller and examining the wonders of robotics with no little curiosity. They included representatives from the Ramle Municipality, an official from the Education Ministry and another from the Immigrant Absorption Ministry. Standing next to them was Einat, an official of the college who was marketing the institution's advantages proficiently. The Ramle Municipality has issued a public tender for a course for holders of a bachelor's degree in health systems management for registered nurses of Bukharan descent. The emphasis on Bukharan descent is important, because the Organization of Bukharan Jews is involved in the tender and because Ramle has the largest concentration of Jews of Bukharan descent in Israel.

Shmuel Ben Mordechai is likely to decide where the nurses will study. As the coordinator of employment for new immigrants in the Ramle Municipality, his opinion will go a long way toward deciding whether the course will be given in Ariel or at another college, within the Green Line. "I am leaning toward recommending the college here in Ariel," he said, "both because of the low tuition fee and because of the warm treatment we were given." Has the delegation taken into account the fact that the college is located in the heart of Samaria? The representatives of the government ministries shrugged off the question as irrelevant.

"From our point of view, that is not a consideration either way," declared the Education Ministry official. "We treat Ariel college like all the other colleges in Israel."

Ben Mordechai explained that the question of the Green Line is not being taken into account. "The deciding factor will be the laboratories and the quality of the studies," he said. "If we decide to hold the course in Ariel, we might explain to the nurses that the place is located in the territories. That's all."

Not for ideology

Prof. Shiller was surprised when friends and others asked if he was right-wing when they heard he had joined the Academic College of Judea and Samaria. He had just returned from 15 years abroad and was thoroughly confused. Before coming back to Israel, he weighed various employment options, finally deciding to accept the offer of the Ariel college "because of the professional challenge." When he visited Israel to become acquainted with the college, he was amazed by the highway that took him from the center of Israel to Ariel. The road blurred the Green Line, and his 15 years abroad also contributed to eliminating the line that existed until June, 1967.

"I saw that it was close to my home in Kiryat Ono and that it takes 30 minutes to get from home to the lab at the college, so I decided I would come to Ariel," he added.

However, when Shiller told his friends about the quality of research at the college, they lambasted him for being right-wing. He told them that he is in favor of peace and they replied that it's impossible to be both in favor of peace and teach at occupied Ariel. That argument left him bewildered.

"I didn't come here for ideological reasons," he said part in explanation and part in self-justification this week in his lab. "My desire was to integrate myself back in Israel. At first I thought about whether to go into industry or academia. After seeing the labs at the college I was drawn here. The fact that I was also given the chance to set up a department of mechatronics also helped," he noted, referring to a multi-technological discipline that integrates several engineering fields.

The second intifada threatened to disrupt his plans for integration. "In 1999, when I started to put out feelers about returning to Israel, the future looked very rosy," he said. "Peace between Israel and the Palestinians was almost signed. At the time, I was very attracted by the thought of teaching at a college in which there is an encounter between Jews and Arabs, between Israelis and Palestinians. It was very appropriate for me to bring people closer together in teaching and in research. With time I saw
that things weren't so terrible and that you could live with it. What influenced me is the new road. It erased the distance between my home and the college almost completely."

The first 30 graduates of the department Shiller heads will soon be graduating. He aspires to produce top-flight engineers, whose quality will surpass that of graduates from the competition. Recently he discovered that demand for his department has increased. The reasons are his reputation and the fact that he produced a program for planning movement in space for NASA, the American space agency. He also received a grant from the Israeli Space Agency to carry out research in this sphere.

"My challenge is purely professional," he said in self-justification again. "It has nothing to do with the fact that the college is located where it is."

Next week, when the college's board of governors meets, its members will take account also of the political and geopolitical aspect of the institution. Wealthy donors from Israel and abroad will inject funds into the college so that it can deepen its hold on the disputed land. The millionaire businessman Irving Moskowitz, who has financed the purchase of land by Jews in Arab areas of East Jerusalem, is considered a major donor. Others are the Reuven Hecht Foundation and the brothers Yuli and Sammy Ofer, who donated the money for the building that houses the department of

The late Ted Arison donated millions, though the donations of his daughter, Shari, are confidential.

"I only hope she will reach the same status as her father," Cohen-Orgad said, and declined to reveal details about other donors. "Our greatest achievement is that we have made the college in Samaria part of the Israeli way of life. In my opinion, there is no longer any question about its existence. The college is an irreversible fact."

Posted by: peace/justice on May 25, 03 | 3:50 pm