The only Jew in the room

Building with two people in front of it one a woman in a hijab and one a man with a backpack
Al-Qasemi College in Haifa (Reuvenj, Creative Commons)

AVI SHALEV was the first Jewish Israeli to attend an Arab tertiary college.  He talks to ITTAY FLESCHER about the experience and the resulting book, now available in English.

When retired Israeli intelligence officer Lieutenant Colonel Avi Shalev registered for studies at Al-Qasemi College, he was the first Jew ever to have requested to study there.

The Baka Al Garbiya college, which specialises in teacher training, conducts its programs in Arabic and English and usually draws only Arab Israeli students.

Shalev was proficient in both written and spoken Arabic, having recently retired after more than two decades as an officer in the Israel Defence Forces’ Civil Administration in both Gaza and the West Bank.

But the experience gave him new insights into Arab culture, resulting in his book “The Only Jew in the Room”, published two years ago in Hebrew and now being released in English.

Those insights are all the more poignant in post-October 7 Israel, a world which saw him speaking to Plus61J from his car, wearing his freshly pressed army uniform with an orange beret pinned to his shoulder, on his way to do his reserves duty with the home front central command.

Cover of the English edition

Shalev came to Al-Qasemi with much more knowledge of Arab Israel than most Jewish Israelis.

From his army service, he knew that language was far more than just words; it was also culture. For example, he shared a fascinating anecdote of a military intelligence document that had translated the response of a Palestinian leader to a request from an Israeli Prime Minister as “Yes,” when in fact, the answer given by the Palestinian leader was Inshallah, meaning “God willing” in Arabic. Shalev had to explain to the translators that, culturally speaking, inshallah can often mean no in colloquial spoken Arabic.

When he began studying for a Diploma of Education at Al-Qasemi College, Shalev had many challenges to overcome, which had nothing to do with language. The first involved the timetable of the College, which regularly had full days of lectures 8-4 pm every Friday and Saturday, two days when there are no classes in Jewish Israeli academic Institutions. As a traditional Jew with an observant wife, driving, studying, missing Friday night family Shabbat meals with his kids, and being at work on Saturday were huge challenges for him.

Then came Ramadan, when it was impossible for him to eat in public at the College, so like the Muslim students, he too had to wake up early for a giant breakfast each day throughout the hot summer month of the fast.

Almost all of his fellow college students were female traditional Muslims who wore the hijab. Two-thirds were Bedouins from the Negev, with the other third being from the north. 95% earned their first degree at Palestinian Universities in the West Bank because all three Arabic-speaking Colleges in Israel, Al-Qasemi in Baka El Garbiah, College of Sakhnin for Teacher Education and the Academic Arab College for Education in Israel-Haifa, all offer only education degrees.

Shalev is now heavily involved in supporting Baka College, which, if it receives accreditation from the Israeli authorities, will become the first College in the country to offer both generalist academic degrees in an Arab town. Better Arabic options in Israel will decrease the number of students exposed to radical ideologies at West Bank universities.  

When Shalev first enrolled, other students feared he was a Mossad agent because of his fluent Arabic and were suspicious of him.  Once he won their trust, he learned much about their motivations for studying teaching. Most didn’t want to work in Hebrew-speaking schools, which currently have a huge teacher shortage, but preferred teaching in Arab schools close to their homes. Teaching was seen by their parents as a safe job, with a reasonable salary that didn’t require a high degree of knowledge of Hebrew, which few of them had.

Shalev also learned much about the barriers faced by his fellow students. He learned about the nature of diglossia in Arabic, meaning that its written and spoken versions are different, unlike Hebrew or English. An outcome of this is that many of the Arabs in his course, who could speak the language fluently, struggle to read it with the same ease. That’s one of the reasons he decided not to translate his book to Arabic, as he didn’t believe there would be any market for it. For many Arabs, writing and reading in classical Arabic is as challenging as writing in biblical Hebrew would be for Jews, said Shalev.

Despite his own positive experiences among Palestinian-Israelis, Shalev’s intelligence background has left him negative about the prospects for peace.

One myth he wanted to bust was that language-learning is a pathway to peace.  Citing the many Ukrainians who speak Russian, he pointed out that co-existence requires understanding and agreement about politics and history not just the ability to speak the other’s language.  Peace will require more Arabs having a greater appreciation of why Israelis need a Jewish state in the heart of the Middle East, he said.

That said, he is still very much in favour of Israeli Jews learning Arabic.  Another idea he suggested was that Israeli Jews should all participate in something akin to a Taglit-Birthright Program when they turn 18 that will introduce them to Islam and the Arabs of Israel, which they currently know almost nothing about. for a similar program should be offered in reverse for Arab and Palestinian citizens of Israel, who would have a structured experience of engagement with Judaism and Israeli society. He felt that if such programs were compulsory, they would significantly reduce the ignorance and prejudices between the two cultures.

Shalev believes law enforcement is key to improving pathways to peace. Whether it be against Kahanists rioting through Arab villages in places such as Huwara or the rampant gun violence that plagues almost every Arab-majority city in Israel, with appropriate police presence and concern for every community equally, Shalev believes Israel can be a very different country with much greater social cohesion.

He hopes that readers of his book in Australia will leave the experience with a greater insight into the psychology of Jewish, Muslim, and Christian Israelis. “They will see the potential risk of internal conflict and the potential for a golden era of cooperation resembling the experience of Andalusia (Spain under Islamic rule, which saw the peak of Islamic-Jewish relations).”

Affirming that every encounter has the potential for both wonder and tragedy, he hopes that the heartbreak so many are experiencing at this time will one day be transformed into opportunities for wonder and mutual respect for all.

The Only Jew in the Room by Avi Shalev is now available in English via Amazon.