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Israel’s first Druze math lecturer does it by the numbers

Posted By ISRAEL21c Staff On October 5, 2003 @ 4:00 pm In | No Comments

“My grandfather was a human calculator; he could do all kinds of calculations in his head. My father only went to the fourth grade, but he could do four-figure multiplication in his head. I guess I inherited their genes.”

Toufik Mansour, the University of Haifa’s newest math teacher and researcher, was explaining how he became the first member of the Druze community in Israel to become a university lecturer in mathematics.

The Druze are an Arab-speaking minority within an Arab minority in Israel, a community loyal to the state that has suffered hundreds of casualties in its defense, and whose men serve today in high-ranking and sensitive positions within the Israeli military and security forces. The Druze in Israel comprise approximately 85,000 people, about 1.8 percent of the total Israeli population and about 10 percent of the country’s minority population. The Druze are centered in Israel, Syria and Lebanon, but also have sizeable expatriate communities in France and the United States, centered in Detroit.

The Druze religion is a monotheistic faith that emphasizes inner and hidden layers of meaning, in the spirit of the neo- Platonic philosophy that was very influential at the time when the Druze religion was born. The Druze believe in the reincarnation and transmigration of souls, and are great believers in secrecy. A great emphasis in the Druze community is placed on education, and Mansour’s success at math was a consolation prize for his parents who wanted him to become a doctor – the most coveted position while he was growing up in the village of Isfiya in the Carmel Mountain range near Haifa.

“I have loved math since the age of 0,” the 35-year-old Mansour said. He earned his bachelors degree in Math at the Haifa Technion but dropped out of the Master’s program due to financial difficulties. After three years of working as a teacher in different schools, from elementary to high school, he returned to his higher education, but transferred to the University of Haifa.

Mansour had actually written his Master’s thesis during his three-year working interval, and the Math Department at Haifa, impressed with the work, accepted it and then admitted him into its doctoral program. He finished his dissertation, with the suggestive title of ‘Permutations with Forbidden Patterns,’ in three years. The budding mathematician had obtained initial results within six months and sent off a paper to a conference in Moscow. It was to be the first of a string of conference appearances and published works.

In fact, the American Mathematical Society’s Internet site, ‘Math SciNet’, which lists mathematicians around the world and their publications, shows that Toufik Mansour has now authored or co-authored twenty articles. Quite an impressive record, considering that he received his doctorate only two years ago.

“I feel at home at the University of Haifa,” Mansour said. “I was well treated, both mathematically and economically.”

Mansour doesn’t feel that his Druze heritage had an effect one way or another on his appointment to the faculty, and says it was based on merit.

“I don’t think achieving this position is dependent on my identity as a Druze, or was in spite of my identity as a Druze. I think that in order to achieve this position the only important factor is your resume,” he told ISRAEL21c. “But I think that Israel gives great opportunities to minorities to achieve positions in higher education.”

After gaining his master and armed with a Bourse Chateaubriand, one of the French government’s most prestigious academic grants, Mansour went to Bordeaux to do post-doctoratal work, but the experience proved disappointing. There weren’t the numbers doing research in his particular branch of discrete mathematics as he had been led to believe; but worse, with the exception of a professor who became his supporter, French mathematicians remained aloof, not interested in his field.

Using the Internet as a math-dating service, he looked for research partners, and he proceeded to write more papers without even meeting his co-authors in person. “In the past year, though, I have met four of the people I wrote with,” he noted in passing. Thanks to the Internet, he remarked, his year in France became one of his most successful.

Mansour next garnered a European Community Research Training Network grant, the only scholar from the University of Haifa to receive one, and spent the next year in Gothenburg, Sweden. The Swedes appreciated him and his research and sought him out from the first day that his supporter at Chalmers University of Technology in Gothenburg recommended him. Ever gracious, he expressed himself grateful for the friendship of these Swedish colleagues and mentors, who also helped to make his and his family’s life easier there.

The objective of his two years of post-doctoral research, Mansour said, was “to get to know [others in his field], to strengthen [his ability in his particular field], and to learn [both more about his field and about other math areas].” He summed up his experience like this: “I managed this last [objective] more than I expected.”

The Druze mathematician now found himself at a crossroads. Sweden, it was made clear to him, was out. So, should he return to Israel or accept a position in the United States? His wife Ronit, who had been left alone with their two young daughters, one an infant, in Israel for the first half of his stay in Sweden, pushed for a return.

That summer, the University’s Math Department made him a three-year offer, financed by a prestigious Maof grant from the Council for Higher Education. As a young married doctoral student, he also taught at four different colleges to finance the construction of his new home in his childhood village, as well as to supplement his income.

Now living back in Isfiya and with his girls age seven and two, Mansour is ready to take on the challenges of his new position. But he said he’s not going to push his daughters to follow in his footsteps.

“They can decide for themselves,” he said with a laugh.

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