When Israel’s Achva Academic College installed Alean Al-Krenawi as its new president last year, it made history.
Al-Krenawi became the first-ever non-Jewish head of an Israeli academic institution and a hero to Bedouins across the country.
The school, which offers degrees in education, is located between Tel-Aviv and Be’er Sheva and is “dedicated to diversity.”
Born and raised in a Bedouin tribe that bears his family name in the Negev, Al-Krenawi said he’s one of 15 siblings and the only one to have attended a high school and university. He earned a bachelor’s degree from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev and a master’s from Hebrew University, both in social work, as well as a PhD in the same subject from the University of Toronto in 1995.
Al-Krenawi, 51, was a visiting professor at the University of Calgary in 2009-2010. He then became dean of the school of social work at Memorial University of Newfoundland from 2010 to 2012 before moving to Achva College.
He said he feels a deep kinship with both Canada and Israel, particularly with the Jewish communities of both countries.
Toronto has a “special place in my heart,” he said. “I used to celebrate holidays with the Jewish community here all along Bathurst Street.”
Speaking at the Lipa Green Centre to journalists and UJA Federation of Greater Toronto’s Israeli Arab Issues Committee – which brought the professor to Toronto in conjunction with the Israeli consulate in Toronto – Al-Krenawi said he decided last year that it was time to help bring more of his fellow Bedouins into the academic realm.
Almost 20 per cent of Achva students are Bedouin, he said.
Al-Krenawi said he also felt a need to build better relations between Jewish and Bedouin Israelis.
“I don’t like the term Zionism. I prefer to use the word ‘Israelism,’” he said. “Don’t judge Islam by the actions of a few Muslims. And don’t judge Judaism by the actions of Jews. We are brothers, but yes, we are different, too.”
Al-Krenawi said he was strongly encouraged by Jewish friends and colleagues to take his current job at Achva College.
One of the first things he did in his new role was make it a priority for students and staff to interact with Bedouins. The aim was to give them role models at an institution of higher learning and inspire them to dream of achievements outside their traditional tribal existence.
Bedouins rank among the lowest socio-economic groups in Israel.
Of the 3,000 or so Bedouin teens who graduate high school annually in Israel, only 20 per cent go to university or college, Al-Krenawi said.
Bedouin parents’ are typically very resistance to sending their children away to school, he added.
“It wasn’t easy to convince my parents that I needed to go to high school and university,” he said. “And back when I was growing up, there was no high school in my region. The community is facing a difficult transition to modern times.”
Much of the opportunity for Bedouin students to go to schools of higher learning come from philanthropic sources, he said.
“The departure point for Bedouins is not the same as for [Jewish] Israeli students. They start with less resources and money. But we’re trying to shift the Bedouin from a traditional life to modern life,” Al-Krenawi said.
Asked whether he encountered friction from Jewish staff at Achva as the college’s first non-Jewish president, he said some faculty members weren’t happy, but he chooses not to dwell on the negative.
“In my life, no matter where I am, I always look at people as human beings. I don’t go into politics. I’m not a politician, but I do believe that when you get to know others, you start to know yourself,” he said.
Al-Krenawi said he believes Bedouins will be motivated by his example and that his appointment will help “change the Israeli discourse” on inter-communal relations.
“I’m asking for your help,” he told the committee. “I want other Arabs in Israel to look at me and dream and know they too can get there. In this, I am supported from all cultures in Israel.
“We are a big family [in Israel] and big families always have different opinions. But I want it known that any non-Jew can achieve what I have. We are all Israelis.”
He did sound a note of caution, however, noting that the cost of tuition at most Israeli universities is prohibitive for Bedouin students. As a result, many choose to attend Palestinian schools, which offer subsidies but often inculcate “negative ideologies” toward Jews and Israel.
“This is a great danger,” Al-Krenawi said. “It poses a risk when the control of what is being taught is taken out of the hands of those trying to integrate the societies.”
It can also lead to radicalization of some students.
“We need to open up the Israeli society to give Bedouins and other Arabs opportunities. Equal opportunity should be the policy of the government” toward education, he said.