Dr. Aref Abu-Rabia , the newly appointed chair of Middle East Studies at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev. (Photo: Dani Machlis)In a striking and encouraging coincidence, two Bedouin professors at Ben-Gurion University in Beersheva were elected chairs of their respective departments this summer. Dr. Aref Abu-Rabia of Middle East Studies and Dr. Alean Al-Krenawi of Social Work are the first Bedouin to serve as department chairs in any Israeli university.

Although in very different fields, the two new chairmen have similar visions for the direction they want their departments to go – toward strengthening coexistence and tolerance between Arabs and Jews inside and outside the university.

“We are all Israelis working for a better future for the University, the Negev and Israel,” Al-Krenawi told ISRAEL21c.

Al-Krenawi’s plans include multiculturalism projects that bring Bedouin and Jewish students to visit each other’s towns to “share their experience.” In addition to a course in Multicultural Social Work, he aims to establish a full program in ‘international social work’ and to develop student exchanges with other universities. All of these projects will increase and emphasize student learning about other cultures and ways of doing social work, he explained.

During Al-Krenawi’s watch, ground will be broken for a new building to house the growing Charlotte B. and Jack J. Spitzer Department of Social Work Social Work department, named for the American Jewish couple whose support for the department began nearly 25 years ago. “Without their help, our progress would have been much less,” said Al-Krenawi, expressing sorrow at Jack Spitzer’s recent death.

Al-Krenawi, whose term as director of the University’s Center for Bedouin Studies will end in October, is the author of two recent books, on ethno-psychiatry among Bedouin and on multicultural social work in Canada. He is currently at work on two more – one about psychotherapy with “indigenous people,” the other about social work in Islam, and he has also done studies on polygamy and so-called ‘honor killings.’ He holds Bachelor’s degrees from BGU, an MA in Social Work from Hebrew University and a Ph.D. in Cross-Cultural Mental Health from the University of Toronto. He is married, with one child.

In Middle East Studies, Abu-Rabia also has plans to encourage and enlarge such special multicultural programs as an international MA degree. He expects the program to attract students from Egypt, Jordan, Morocco, Tunisia and Kuwait, despite most of these countries’ reluctance to recognize Israel diplomatically.

“Each student who comes is a success,” he said, not least because they will mix with Jewish, North American and other Arab students.

He too plans joint Jewish-Bedouin study tours to Arab and Jewish towns. Last year, he reports, such a trip was for many Jewish students their first time in a Bedouin town. Their visit to a mosque where the imam talked about coexistence between religions and cultures was “especially emotional for the Jews,” he said.

Beyond the local landscape, Abu-Rabia aims to conduct student tours to Arab countries, such as Turkey and Morocco, in order to study the joint heritage of Jews and Muslims. He plans to expand an ongoing series of conferences dealing with religious and political issues in a multicultural framework that he hopes will increase mutual understanding among ethnic groups.

“The synagogue of Maimonides in Cairo was always a place of healing to which many people came, both Muslim and Jewish, but today everything is upside down,” he lamented.

The new chairman, who earned his Ph.D. at Tel Aviv University in the Anthropology of the Middle East, is the author of four books on education and Bedouin anthropology. He is married with six children.

The university’s inclusive atmosphere reflects the vision and tireless work of its president, Dr. Avishay Braverman. During the 14 years of his presidency, Braverman has opened the university’s doors to both faculty and students from the Bedouin community, which represents about a third of the population of Israel’s Negev region.

The number of female Bedouin students, for example, has gone from only two to nearly 300 (along with an equal number of men).

“I see the future of the Negev with Jews and Bedouin together,” Braverman told ISRAEL21c.

In Braverman’s view, the university is not an isolated center of academic excellence but essential to the overall development of the Negev. It fulfills this role on many levels. For example, 7,000 BGU students are currently involved in regional social projects with Jews and Bedouin. An interlocking network of academic-enrichment programs for Bedouin grammar-school and high-school students continues to successfully prepares increasing numbers of Bedouin for study at the university.

The university, Braverman said, is also an engine to generate jobs in ‘high-quality, brain-oriented’ industries, in order to bring people to the Negev, retain them there and create an infrastructure for future economic and cultural growth. Ultimately, he envisages the Negev as Israel’s ‘Silicon Valley,’ with Beersheva as a large, multicultural metropolis that will incorporate surrounding Bedouin towns as well as Jewish ones.

The unequal economic and educational position of the Bedouin, he cautioned, remains a major issue. “The Jewish state must be a just state,” he said, “for the sake of simple justice and also for its own well-being, since injustice will lead to violence and conflict.”

As the university does its part to create a more just society, both Abu-Rabia and Al-Krenawi describe the ‘good feeling’ they have to be elected by Jewish faculty to positions of authority. As Al-Krenawai said, “It’s a good feeling when people give you their confidence.”