At Sapir College, exams are consistently interrupted by sirens warning students that a Kassam rocket has been launched. Once the sirens go off, the students have approximately 15 seconds to exit the test area and seek shelter.
This scenario can happen more than five times during the course of a three-hour exam, but students are not given any extra time to complete their work. The sirens and potential for danger are simply part of daily life at this Israeli university, located less than a mile from the Gaza Strip.
Two Sapir professors spoke to a group of about 15 GW students and community members Monday afternoon at Marvin Center. The professors addressed their mission to continue to educate students while living in the midst of a heated political conflict.
“People in this area don’t lead normal lives,” said Uri Bibi, chair of human resources management at Sapir. “You can’t lead a normal life under these circumstances.”
Despite having to deal with violence and attacks on their campus on a daily basis, Sapir’s professors emphatically refuse to discuss politics.
“I’m an educator. I’m not a politician,” said Ruth Eitan, a modern history professor and head of overseas programs at Sapir. “What I’m trying to do is with words, with attitude … I do believe that slowly, slowly you can change.”
As the largest public university in Israel, Sapir has an extremely multicultural student body. More than one-fifth of its about 5,000 students were born outside Israel and about 400 of those students are not Jewish.
“You can find people coming to class in a veil and people coming to class in a military uniform,” Bibi said.
The professors said they hope that education can be a bridge between the Israeli and Palestinian societies.
“We believe we can raise an alternative to war and politics and this alternative is education,” Bibi said.
Teaching and studying in this hostile environment has taken a toll on Sapir’s students, faculty and staff. Many students suffer from severe anxiety attacks.
Despite these challenges Bibi said the faculty is committed to high academic standards and to helping the student body stay resilient in spite of their unique learning environment.
“We are a unique college because for the last seven years we are under Kassam attack, a terror attack and yet our students stay in college,” Eitan said.
While the Israeli professors said they want to separate education from politics, Israeli Apartheid Week brought Middle East politics to campuses around the globe last week. Cities and colleges hosted lectures, discussions and documentary screenings to call attention to injustices inflicted on Palestinians.
The goal of the week is to advocate for full equality of Arab-Palestinian citizens of Israel and to call for an end to Israeli occupation of the Golan Heights, the West Bank, East Jerusalem and the Gaza Strip.
As part of Israeli Apartheid Week, the GW Campus Anti-war Network (GW CAN) debated issues like Israel’s recent cutting of fuel and electricity to Gaza and the use of the term “apartheid” to describe Israel’s attacks.
“The Palestinians attack because they’re suffering under the Israelis, and the Israelis attack in retaliation to the Palestinians,” said alumnus George Halabi. “Violence is a cycle,” he continued. “We could be here for hours trying to decide what to call it – apartheid or not – but what we really need to remember is that we’re just losing lives.”
Freshman Yong Kwon, a member of GW CAN, said the term “apartheid” should be debated.
“The purpose of the event was not to disclose whether or not Israel is an apartheid state,” he said, “but to allow for academic discourse to offer modes of solution.”