“The challenge here in Israel lies in teaching amidst a conflict, not in discussing abstractly the conflict itself.”

How do Israeli universities avoid getting overwhelmed by the conflict? In this interview – the second in our series of reports from Israel – Mona Khoury, the first Arab Vice-President in the history of the Hebrew University of Jerusalem, describes the successful efforts made to ensure the continuity of university life after October 7 and in spite of the conflict. All this while taking a critical look at how, elsewhere in the world, campuses have allowed themselves to be overrun by the ideological conflagration.



Mona Khoury
K. : Thanks for seeing us in your office at Hebrew University of Jerusalem. How is the situation in the university?

MK : After October 7th the universities stayed closed. We started the academic year only on December 31st. Until that point, our campuses had been devoid of students, but staff members including faculty and administrators were present. During this period, our focus was primarily on preparation. With the outbreak of war, we anticipated potential tensions among students and recognized the potential challenges in delivering university education and services amidst such circumstances. Consequently, our efforts were directed towards preparing faculty and administrative staff. We conducted various workshops tailored to their needs. General workshops addressed effective teaching strategies within extended timeframes, while specific workshops were designed for professors delivering courses on conflict-related topics such as Palestinian history, the Nakba, and the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. These courses, predominantly in the fields of social sciences and humanities, were meticulously identified, and approximately 30 professors were invited to participate in specialized workshops.

K. : Tell us about these workshops.

MK : The workshops primarily aimed at equipping faculty members with specific tools for teaching their courses during times of war. Particularly, when the course content revolves around conflict-related topics, it becomes imperative to train educators on how to effectively navigate such sensitive subjects. Additionally, we conducted workshops tailored for faculties with a significant number of Arab students, such as pharmacology where 75% of the student body are Arabs. Our focus was on collaborating with departmental management to prepare both staff and faculty members for the return of all students, considering the potential dynamics when the majority are Arab students and the minority are Jewish students and or the other way round. We continue to provide assistance and guidance throughout the year, addressing any issues raised by the faculties. In addition, the dean of students proposed workshops about anxiety and how to deal with it. We called all our students, Jewish and Arabs, who live in the southern parts of Israel, then the northern parts, i.e. the students who had to leave their homes. And we did various zoom meetings for Arab students. By the beginning of the year, we had called all these students.

K. : All of them ?

MK : All of them. Each faculty member received a few names of students, and were asked to call them and ask how they were doing and how we can help. 

Furthermore, preceding the academic year, we organized an event titled “Winter at the University”. This event brought together faculty members, administrators, and students from diverse backgrounds, to brainstorm ideas on how to navigate the upcoming academic year. Numerous initiatives and suggestions emerged from this event, one of which was implemented at the beginning of the academic year. This initiative, called “Living and Learning Together” involved the participation of approximately 400 volunteers representing various university groups. At the beginning of the academic year they welcomed the students, engaged in conversations with them, and offered assistance, particularly with issues like navigating campus and locating classrooms. Despite our initial concerns about potential tensions, most of them wanted just assistance in finding their classes… The volunteers also distributed guidelines on freedom of speech, developed by a special committee, across the campus—a visible reminder of our commitment to fostering a supportive and inclusive environment for all.

Meeting point for the “Living, Learning together” initiative at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem
K. : Did it work ?

MK : Truth spoken, conflicts were minimal. For these rare cases of misconduct or inappropriate behavior, we established a disciplinary committee, comprising members appointed by the director and president. It was tasked with addressing issues such as expressions of support for acts of terrorism or racist remarks targeting others, like statements advocating violence against Arabs. While we did receive some complaints, only three students were brought before this committee—two Arabs and one Jewish student. None of them faced suspension from the university; instead, they offered apologies and were able to resume their studies.

These were the primary occurrences during the initial phase of the academic year, aside from the complex situation involving Professor Nadira Shaloub Kouberkian, which garnered significant attention and involvement from university management and stakeholders. She was investigated by the police, and she was arrested for one night.

K. : What were the charges against her ?

MK : God knows ! The charges are about what she said in a podcast. Anyway, this was the only “event” we had. It’s remarkable that we experienced minimal conflict at the outset of the academic year.

K. : So, all is fine? 

MK: Probably not. For it’s important to acknowledge the underlying fear and apprehension prevalent among people. Many are hesitant to speak out due to concerns about potential repercussions. Unfortunately, we’re in a situation where even if the university and our disciplinary committee choose not to address a complaint, there’s still the possibility that law enforcement might become involved. This atmosphere of fear has affected both Arab and Jewish students, making them reluctant to voice their opinions. Arab students, in particular, fear potential investigations. Nevertheless, I believe that the extensive preparation undertaken before and during the academic year has played a significant role in fostering better relationships among students. While conflicts on a personal level may still occur, they haven’t escalated to the extent of disrupting entire classes, unlike a situation we encountered on May 2021, when numerous conflicts erupted within WhatsApp groups among students.

K. : How did you come up with all this solution in the governance of the university? What were your inspirations?

MK: As said, In May 2021 we weren’t adequately prepared. So, at the time, our President recognized the need for proactive measures. Over the course of a year and a half, we collaborated closely with various departments and experts, including security personnel, the CEO, the rector, the president, as well as the dean of Students and the Acord Center, which specializes in social psychology interventions. Together, we meticulously developed a set of guidelines known as “Before the Storm.” These guidelines outlined our strategies and protocols for responding effectively in times of conflict. This comprehensive approach ensured that we were better equipped to navigate challenging situations and respond promptly and effectively when needed. 

K.: You’re a specialist of social work. Did this change something for you in developing the guidelines? Did you choose a more sociological than psychological approach? 

MK:  Indeed, I’m a professor in social work, specialized in the field of juvenile delinquency. My background in social work significantly influenced my approach. In my research, I firmly believe that assigning blame solely to individuals for their violent behavior is often misguided. Instead, it’s crucial to examine the environmental factors at play. This perspective extends to diversity as well. While individuals may bear some responsibility for their actions, external circumstances often exert a significant influence. Understanding this dynamic shapes my perception of behavior and informs how I approach diversity-related challenges, including the development of guidelines.

For instance, following the events of October 7, there were individuals who expressed reluctance to engage with Arab students. As an Arab myself, I could easily have reacted defensively. However, during the initial period, we chose to allow everyone to process their emotions without judgment. We created a space for people to acknowledge and work through their trauma before addressing any concerns. Attempting to confront or change deeply ingrained attitudes during such a vulnerable time would likely have been counterproductive. Amidst these circumstances, it’s crucial to strike a balance. While we may initially tolerate certain behaviors or viewpoints, it doesn’t imply a long-term acceptance of them. However, our response must be strategic, respectful, and empathetic. Merely admonishing individuals or delivering lectures isn’t constructive or effective. Instead, we need to engage with them in a manner that is thoughtful and considerate. It’s about finding ways to address differences and challenges without resorting to confrontation or criticism. By approaching these situations with sensitivity and intelligence, we can foster understanding and promote positive change more effectively.

K. : How was the preparation of the professors that teach about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict? 

MK : I actually took part in the pilot workshops with them. One key suggestion was about preparation before class. For instance, if you have a small group of students and you’re teaching about the conflict, they advised reaching out to them individually. So, if you have 20 students, personally call each of them. Let them know the topics you’ll be covering and encourage them to share any personal difficulties they may have, such as recent experiences in the army or loss of a family member in Gaza. This preemptive communication ensures that students aren’t caught off guard during class discussions on sensitive topics like the conflict.

Another valuable suggestion was to send out a survey to gauge students’ perspectives on which topics to prioritize. Additionally, they advised against starting with the most challenging topics and recommended flexibility in adjusting the curriculum as needed. While teaching in the midst of a war adds an extra layer of complexity, it’s worth noting that many of these professors already navigate discussions on the conflict regularly, given the ongoing nature of the situation in Israel. The challenge here in Israel lies in teaching amidst a conflict, not in discussing abstractly the conflict itself.

K. : Are there other initiatives ?

MK : We have an initiative known as the Rothschild Ambassadors program, supported by the Rothschild foundation. This program brings together both Jewish and Arab students. In a meeting they organized after October 7th, they invited other Jewish and Arab students to participate. Despite the challenging circumstances of wartime, approximately 50 students attended this gathering to discuss Jewish-Arab relationships.

Currently, they are planning a second meeting to further explore and build upon the insights gained from the first one. During the initial gathering, various perspectives emerged. Some students expressed a desire to engage in discussions with Jewish or Arabic students, while others preferred to remain within their own national groups. This diversity of opinions reflects the broader spectrum of viewpoints present at the university.

We respect and accommodate these differing preferences. For instance, we offer options such as the Identity group, exclusively for Palestinian and Arab students, and a dialogue group for both Jewish and Arab students. It’s essential not to compel students to engage in dialogue if they feel uncomfortable or unready. Also, we have variation between Arab students. We have students from Jerusalem, students from the northern parts of Israel. We encourage them to first explore and secure their own identities, as this forms a crucial foundation for understanding others. 

K. : We see your efforts in order not to make your campus a place to carry out the current conflict.. How do you see the protest and occupations of campuses in the US or in Europe ?

MK : You see, this is exactly the point. We live the conflict, so our problem is not to carry it out here at the university. And living the conflict, means above all that we can see both sides. I’m Arabic myself, but of course I can see the Jewish persons. I can  see the suffering of the people, on October 7 and in its consequences. And don’t forget, it’s not only Jewish persons but Arabs too which were killed on this day. But I can see at the same time the suffering of the Palestinian people in Gaza. I don’t see only one side. 

And it is our collective experience of the conflict that leads us to advocate for an end to the war.

Here, in Israel, it might be easier for us to comprehend the multifaceted nature of the conflict. Unlike those observing from afar, who may feel compelled to pick a side to assert their stance, we understand that the reality is far more nuanced. We need to navigate discussions about the conflict because the issues involved are not straightforward. Our aim is to foster understanding and promote peace in a situation that is inherently intricate and deeply rooted in historical and political complexities.

Inside the Hebrew University of Jerusalem on May 9, 2024
K. : How do you explain the protests in the Western Universities?

MK : I believe there are different groups in these demonstrations. Some of them are demonstrating for a good thing, which is stopping the war. And students actually should be active in these activities supporting justice. This is something that is very important. Look, here in Israel too, not later than yesterday, we had another demonstration about bringing back the hostages and stopping the war. And of course I support them. We have one student who is a hostage, Carmel Gat, and a child of one of our professors who is also hostage. 

So, you see, I think it is good to protest, but taking the protest against Jews, that is something, even for us, people who want to solve the Palestinian problem and the situation to be better, that only can be called racist. I’m Arabic, and I don’t want people to do something like this to me, so why would I want people to do this to Jewish people? Some might say : you experience discriminated policies from the Israelis. This kind of simplistic descriptions of the very complex situation here don’t convince me and even less lead me to support the kind of behaviors you can see on some of the Western campuses – I mean the use of violence and targeting Jews because of their religion, as I don’t agree to target Palestinians because of their nationality. 

Now we are in the war. I want to believe that protesters in the US and Europe are in good faith, that they want to support people who are dying. But taking it to violence against others because they are Jewish or because they are not supporting what you say is unacceptable.

K. : What is your advice to the Western universities ?

MK : I don’t believe in lecturing others or being lectured ourselves, particularly given the complexities of our situation. Just as some Palestinian-Arabs in Israel may feel judged by others, I prefer not to pass judgment on anyone else. However, what I can say is that solving the current problem is incredibly challenging, especially considering the lack of proactive measures taken beforehand. Unlike some, we’ve been living in a conflict situation, which has made us acutely aware of its complexities. We’ve openly discussed and prepared our faculty members for potential conflicts between students.

The situation in Europe or the US differs from ours, as conflict-related disruptions typically occur only during times of war. Consequently, it’s understandable that they may not be adequately prepared for such situations, leading to surprise and uncertainty.

K. : You have students that experience the complexity personally.

MK : We, as Arabs born in Israel, have firsthand experience of the ongoing situation. It’s a reality we’ve grown up with and are intimately familiar with. For us, there’s no denying or avoiding the truth of the conflict. And while some Jewish and Arab individuals may prefer to turn a blind eye to the complexities of the situation, deep down, many recognize that the conflict exists. It’s not something that materialized out of thin air; it’s deeply rooted in historical and political realities. Even if there’s disagreement about the solutions, acknowledging the existence of the conflict is a critical first step towards understanding and resolution. 

Interview by Julia Christ et Elie Petit
Professor Mona Khoury is Vice-President for Diversity and Strategy at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

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