Mona Khoury-Kassabri is the dean of Hebrew University’s school of social work, and the first Arab-Israeli woman to be appointed to such a position at an Israeli university. She was in Toronto on Feb. 11 to speak about the school’s research and increasing access to education for Israel’s Arab and ultra-Orthodox minorities.
What are the school of social work’s specialties?
We study trauma; in Israel, trauma is common. We study disabilities; juvenile delinquency, which is my field of research; school violence and cyberbullying, which is a study that I’m doing here in Canada with Prof. Faye Mishna; and we have studies about residential care.
How is being dean so far?
I have been dean since Oct. 1. It’s OK. It’s challenging, a lot of work, stressful, but I enjoy it. It’s nice. I actually completed all my degrees at the school of social work at Hebrew University, so I feel like I’m giving back all that I have gotten so far.
Do you still have time for research?
I always try to do that. I have two research projects that I’m doing now. One of them is about political violence of children in east Jerusalem. My colleague from the criminology department and I are trying to understand why kids are involved in political violence, what their attitudes are, whether it’s a family issue, or more politically motivated. We are in the middle of that research.
With another colleague, I’m studying the use of violence in preschool-age children. We are trying to understand what factors are related to that.
What have you found so far in your research?
These studies are still too early, but I have other studies that are related to those. With early childhood, we have studies about students in kindergarten, and we have found that a lot of kids use violence because they are affected by parental stress and the relationship between the mother and the father affects the use of violence towards the children, which results in the child using violence towards others. It’s a complicated picture that shows family factors affect mothers’ use of corporal punishment, which in the end affect children’s use of violence themselves.
With respect to the political violence, in a study that I did with a relatively small sample of around 170 youth from east Jerusalem, we found actually one surprising result: the higher the religiosity of the children, the less likely they are to be involved in political violence. Usually people think that it’s a result of religiosity – that kids use violence or throw stones or are involved in illegal demonstrations because of religious values. So in this small study we found that it’s the opposite, that the more religious are less involved. Now we have a larger sample of around 600 youth, but we have yet to analyze the data so far.
How did the neighbourhood you grew up in affect the way you look at social issues?
I grew up in a very disadvantaged neighbourhood in Haifa, and I was exposed from a very young age to social problems, especially drug addiction, drug abuse and some violence among my neighbours. I was interested in all these people – why do they use drugs and why don’t they go to rehabilitation?
Did that drive you to social work?
I think those issues affected my decision, but also affected the way I study social problems. One of the main differences between social work and psychology is that we want to study the person within context. This is actually the main agenda of social work, that you don’t focus only on personal problems by trying to fix or treat only issues that are related to the person himself. So we say there are multi-system effects – the parents, the neighbourhood, political issues. They all affect the behaviour of the child.
What does it mean to you to be chosen as dean of the school of social work?
It’s a good thing that happened, but unfortunately the numbers are very low. So if you look at me, the person, I think it’s a good achievement for me, for the university, but I’m sure I wasn’t chosen because I’m Arab. I was chosen because I was elected for this position. But it’s an important message for the university to show they don’t block people from being deans if they belong to minority groups.
But I believe more should be done, because now there are 14 Arab staff out of 1,000 total – although the university is increasing efforts to improve the numbers. In my faculty, we have a new position that will be held by an Arab Muslim woman, who will be the first Arab Muslim woman to be hired by the university, out of 1,000 people. There are three Arab women now, and all of us are Christian women.
What’s something Israeli academia can do to increase diversity among its staff?
We are trying to work with more students by contacting schools and having open days for Arab students, sending the message that we welcome Arab students and Arab staff. I think that hiring more Arab staff also sends the message that we are willing to have more staff, more students, we are open to the Arab population and we are investing a lot of effort in this plan. We are trying to provide Hebrew courses, English courses, tutoring for students.
What are some barriers to equal educational accessibility?
There is a problem with the educational system, so universities try to fix the situation of the students when they arrive, but there is a huge problem before they arrive. Only 35 per cent of Arab students are eligible to apply to higher education. That means almost two-thirds of the students are not eligible. So we at the university have to work with this 35 per cent, and even out of those students, sometimes they are eligible to go to colleges but not to university, because at Hebrew University we have higher standards. So more should be invested in the students and the schools.
What would you like to see in terms of investing in education?
It’s very important to give more scholarships. It’s very important to have more classes of Jewish and Arab students together to discuss issues, and of course to invest in new stuff. We have an investment in giving to STEM (science, technology, engineering and math) education, but we don’t have something parallel to that in social science. If we had this money, we would be able to recruit more Arab staff.
This interview has been edited and condensed for style and clarity.