Druze students from the Beyahad program at Ono Academic College in Kiryat Ono, Israel, pose at their graduation ceremony in January 2018. Credit: Courtesy.
Druze students from the Beyahad program at Ono Academic College in Kiryat Ono, Israel, pose at their graduation ceremony in January 2018. Credit: Courtesy.

Program empowers Druze women to break Israel’s glass ceiling

The Beyahad program at Ono Academic College provides aspiring Druze women with the opportunity to advance their professional careers while maintaining their traditional lifestyle.

There is a tradition within the Druze community dating back to the 11th century that calls for complete loyalty to the government of the country in which they reside. In this spirit, the Druze community has enjoyed a special relationship with Israel, often referred to as the “blood covenant.” The community is devoted to Israel, with 83 percent of Druze men serving in the Israel Defense Forces (60 percent in combat units), and many seeking jobs as civil servants. In fact, the recently dissolved 20th Knesset included five Druze Knesset members.

Still, the Druze community—an Arabic-speaking, ethno-religious group numbering 140,00—has been left to evaluate its place within Israeli society following the passage of the Jewish nation-state law.

Accounting for a little less than 2 percent of Israel’s population, the Druze community is a minority within a minority that grapples with issues most other groups could not even fathom. The Druze are Israeli citizens, but not Jewish. They are Arabs, but not Muslim. Employment opportunities, mostly teaching and internal community jobs, are offered in limited quantities and almost exclusively to the men, making the advancement of the community’s women nearly impossible.

Breaking the glass ceiling—or at least, attempting to reach it—for Druze women is currently in the news, literally. Gadeer Mreeh, a Druze woman, made headlines in December when she became the first non-Jewish woman to anchor a Hebrew-language news broadcast at the Israel Public Broadcasting Corporation. Mreeh is likely to make a stir again, as she is set to become the first Druze woman in the Israeli Knesset after placing 25th on the list for the centrist Blue and White Party in the upcoming Israeli elections.

Success stories like Mreeh’s are encouragingly becoming more commonplace, due in part to the Beyahad (meaning “Together” in Hebrew) program at Ono Academic College in Kiryat Ono, east of Tel Aviv. Modeled after Ono’s haredi campus, the program—the first of its kind in Israel—incorporates the same outlook and respect for religious needs, providing young Druze women with the conditions required to advance their professional careers, while maintaining their unique way of life.

“This program allows Druze women to expand their horizons by exposing them to new opportunities. It has already dramatically changed the face of the Druze community,” says Temer Wahaba, who founded Beyahad in 2012 and continues to manage the program. “Women who were once overlooked are now studying modern subjects and are integrated into almost any academic field that interests them. We now have women researchers, engineers and doctors from the Druze community—something that was once deemed improbable.”

Wahaba, who hails from an entrepreneurial family in Beit Jann, began studying at Ono in 2010. When he realized that Ono had special programs for various populations, including the ultra-Orthodox, Ethiopian Israelis and individuals with disabilities, he questioned why there wasn’t similar programming for the Druze. After being told that the Druze community felt that Ono couldn’t accommodate them, he spoke to Ono’s founder and CEO, Ranan Hartman.

Hartman was very receptive of Wahaba’s ideas, and a budget was allocated for young Druze women to study advanced technological management subjects, including the provision of preparatory courses and the tools they would need to succeed without any prior knowledge in the field. The first class included 60 students studying information systems. Almost seven years later, Beyahad boasts 750 students studying in various fields.

The project’s success hinges on its focus of providing students with a soft landing. To ease them into college life, tuition fees are lowered, and buses are provided from their homes in the Galilee, a two-hour bus ride away. Additionally, exam dates are changed so as not to fall on Druze holidays, and permission is granted for translators to help students during exams since Hebrew is not their first language.

‘Part of a family’

Wahaba explains that while other institutions rejected the initiative out of hand, Ono understood the importance of the project and its added social value. Unfortunately, some members of the Druze community weren’t as agreeable, resisting the idea out of fear.

“At first, my family was against my wish to enroll in the program. It was new, and they didn’t want me to take the risk,” recalls Malak Abugush, a graduate of Beyahad. “But I had made up my mind, and I was able to convince them. Eventually, when they saw how successful the program was, they were happy and relieved.”

Born in Maghar Village in Israel, Abugush moved to Canada at age 15, only to return to Israel after graduating high school. One after another, Israeli universities refused to accept her SAT qualifications. After explaining her situation to Wahaba, she was accepted into Beyahad and studied Business Management and Information Systems.

Upon graduation from the program, she returned to Ono as a teacher, feeling “so much part of a family” and wanting to help advance the careers of Israel’s minorities. Abugush has since found employment as a QA engineer at Galil Software, Israel’s premier onshore R&D company.

Abugush is one of many Beyahad success stories, as the program enjoys an extraordinarily high employment-placement rate. The program’s graduates have become entrepreneurs and secured top positions at internationally renowned companies, including Israel Aircraft Industries, Bank Hapoalim, Bezeq, National Insurance and the Ministry of the Interior.

Elbit Systems, one of Israel’s largest defense companies, worked with Ono and Beyahad to establish a high-tech programming center in Karmiel. To date, the center employs 32 of Beyahad’s Druze graduates and is expected to employ 60 more within the next year. The end goal is to reach 400 within five years.

Tzav Technologies, which focuses on advanced tank ventilation and other systems for the defense industry, plans to employ 15 graduates within the next year and reach 50 within two years. And GME Programming, which has established software programming houses in Druze communities in northern Israel under the guidance of Maj.-Gen. Gadi Shamni, intends to recruit 20 graduates and reach 500 within the next five years.

Abugush feels indebted to Beyahad for helping her navigate her own personal educational journey and do her part to shatter Israel’s glass ceiling. “This project helped me study the subject that I wanted and get the job I always dreamed of having. The feeling that there’s always someone available if you face a difficulty made me feel secure, like I belonged to a family, not just a student at some college.”

Reflecting on his struggles to find footing for the program early on—and Beyahad’s undeniable success in becoming the collegiate program with the largest concentration of Druze students in the country—Wahaba explains that the key to the advancement of any Israeli minority, and Israeli society as a whole, will always be acceptance.

“In truth, we were on the road to success the moment Ono opened its doors to us. The real and noticeable changes that we made for Druze women and the entire Druze community can be duplicated for every other community throughout Israel,” stresses Wahaba. “Education may be a minority student’s ticket into Israeli society, but enlightenment is Israeli society’s ticket to real progress.”

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