THE BLOG

Guess Who's Valedictorian at Israel's Top Medical School?

07/16/2013 03:31 pm ET | Updated Sep 15, 2013
  • Diana Bletter Writer, Author, 'A Remarkable Kindness' (HarperCollins, 2015), 'The Mom Who Took Off On Her Motorcycle'
Diana Bletter

Guess who graduated first in this year's medical school class at the Technion, Israel's version of M.I.T.? The answer will surprise you. It's a 27-year-old stereotype-buster: a charming, feminist, smart, open-minded and observant Islamic woman named Mais Ali-Saleh who grew up in a small village outside of Nazareth, in Israel's Galilee.

Ali-Selah's academic excellence not only marks her own personal achievement but also proves that contrary to propaganda spouted by proponents of the BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) Movement -- whose latest convert is Stephen Hawking -- an academic boycott of Israel is the wrong approach to solving the Israel-Arab conflict. Moreover, it ultimately hurts the very people it claims to help. Ali-Selah put it best when she said, "An academic boycott of Israel is a passive move, and it doesn't achieve any of its purported objectives."

After Ali-Selah's first class at the Technion, in Haifa, northern Israel, she was ready to call it quits. Ali-Selah had studied Hebrew from elementary school through high school but in the predominantly Arab area around Nazareth, she rarely used Hebrew and her vocabulary was limited. During Ali-Selah's first Chemistry lecture, she couldn't understand why her professor kept talking about malls. What did shopping malls have to do with Chemistry? She then realized the professor was speaking about moles, a standard scientific unit for measuring quantities of minute entities.

It did not take long for her to break through her limited language skills and rise to the top of her class. In fact, in 2011, she was one of eight students from around Israel who were presented with academic awards of excellence at the Knesset, Israel's Senate.

Ali-Selah claims that her academic drive is "part genes and part family background." After raising four children, Ali-Selah's mother, Fahima, went back to school to complete her college education and is now studying for a PhD in education. (Ali-Selah's father, Rohi, would have liked to continue his education but his father died when he was a high school senior and he was forced to go to work to support his younger siblings.) Ali-Selah said that the atmosphere in the village, Jaffa-Nazareth, is liberal and many of its residents encourage young women to further their education.
Ali-Selah is currently doing an Obstetrics/Gynecology residency at Carmel Hospital in Haifa. She said that in her village, Jaffa-Nazareth, she knew of only one female Arab doctor. She decided to take on the field, despite its demanding hours, because she knew that many Arab women are more comfortable going to a female doctor rather than a male. She says that in addition to her personal goals, she wants to make a contribution to Israeli-Arab society.

Aware that she is seen as a role model to other young Arab women, Ali-Selah also knows that she is breaking common misperceptions and stereotypes. "The media emphasizes negative things about Muslims and does not emphasize the positive," Ali-Selah said. She also feels, however, that extremists are co-opting Islam and radicalizing it. Extremists within Islam are influencing people's perceptions about Islam and women's roles. "There is nowhere in the Koran that that states women should not study," Ali-Selah explained. In fact, she said that the Koran emphasizes that women must learn because they are the ones to educate the children. The same is true of women's dress. Women are supposed to dress modestly, but there are no Islamic laws stating that women need to wear long robes or cover their faces.

"If people's socio-economic situation improves, they become more educated and enlightened," Ali-Selah said. "Take away people's food, and they become religious." Her husband, Nidal Mawasi, agrees with her. Mawasi, who comes from Baqa al-Gharbiya, an Arab city in central Israel, graduated from Technion's Medical School in 2008. They met because he was teaching her dissection course, and they are now expecting their first child.

On trips to Europe, Ali-Selah said that people she met were surprised to learn that Israeli Arabs studied engineering and medicine in Israel, and that they lived among Jews. This lack of awareness helps the BDS Movement win misguided supporters. Boycotters like Roger Waters repeat a falsehood -- that Israel is an apartheid state -- and deny a fundamental truth: Arabs, in particular Arab women, have more freedom, liberties and academic opportunities in Israel than in any Arab country. Yes, they do.

Rather than an academic boycott -- which targets researchers who want to disseminate knowledge rather than restrict it -- Ali-Selah suggests a more active stance: encouraging academic life within the Palestinian Authority and strengthening academic ties with Palestinian universities, planning joint research projects with Palestinian scientists, and admitting more Palestinian scholars to European and American universities for academic programs.

Ali-Selah said that because she did medical research, the boycott did not negatively impact her work, but sooner or later, she said that it will impinge upon academic researchers she knows, both Jews and Arabs. That's why Stephen Hawking and others interested in advancing the cause of peace in the Middle East should focus their energies on supporting more of Israel's success stories like Mais Ali-Selah's, and pressuring Arab countries to emulate Israel's academic freedoms and democracy.

Some might argue that Ali-Selah is an exception to the rule about the Arab minority in Israel. But we only have to look at President Barack Obama to remember how unusual -- and important -- exceptions are.