What separates humans from other species, the late William F. Buckley Jr. once told an interviewer, is “the ability to make distinctions.” Not every human has that ability, of course, and certain issues are so susceptible to distortion that even those with the ability to make distinctions don’t necessarily make them.
Israel is one issue on which a combination of ingrained hatreds and an addiction to cant frequently blurs facts and encourages fictions. Sixteen straight weeks of massive pro-democracy demonstrations on Israeli streets have spotlighted the noxious coalition government that presently prevails, one dominated by some truly repugnant figures and led by a prime minister willing to sacrifice Israeli democracy to save his own skin.
As usual, however, when it comes to Israel, distinctions are often disfavored. The scope and size of the protests are evidence of Israel’s essential character, evidence that is unwelcome for those determined to despise it. The same holds for its multicultural, pluralistic society, which does not produce a citizenry in lockstep. It is a society, moreover, that is densely packed with social justice warriors.
A case in point is Mouna Maroun, professor of neurobiology, vice president and dean of research and development at the University of Haifa. A dynamic woman with a ready smile, Maroun grew up in an Arab village just outside of Haifa, a city known for its heterogeneity.
Her father’s family came from Lebanon, and Maroun recalls with a laugh that while her childhood friends dreamed of becoming pop stars, she dreamed of becoming Israel’s Ambassador to Lebanon.
Neither of Maroun’s parents even finished elementary school. “But I was lucky,” she says, “because they both believed that their four daughters should get higher education, and they did everything they could to make it happen.” Her father was able to provide the barest basics by running a small grocery store, and once a month bartered groceries so that Maroun, an avid reader from the outset, could get French lessons. She passed the University of Haifa campus every morning going from her village to her school, “dreaming that one day I would be one of its students.”
Maroun had no money and knew no Hebrew. “But the University provided us, the Arab students, with academic support that enabled me and many other Arabs to keep from dropping out,” she recalled, “and to be able to continue our studies and succeed.”
Succeed she has. Fascinated by the brain, she proceeded to earn a bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and Ph.D. from the University of Haifa, all in psychology. Her appointment as head of the Neurosciences Department made her the first Arab woman to head a university science department in Israel.
But her influence extends much further. Her emphasis on promoting Israeli Arabs in academia and in the sciences in particular is one of the reasons that the University has become an exemplar of diversity. Nearly half of its students are Israeli Arabs. Maroun’s awareness of how well-positioned she is to showcase opportunities and to help provide them is keen. “I am a minority within minorities,” she says. “I am an Israeli, an Arab, a Christian, a Catholic Maronite and a woman.”
She helps lead a number of national commissions formed to lift Israeli Arabs further up the academic ladder. She is a ubiquitous presence in Israeli Arab communities, where she mentors, lectures, exhorts, pushes and prods. Once named among Israel’s 50 most influential women, she organizes partnerships with the Ministry of Education, the European Union and philanthropic foundations devoted to elevating those on the periphery.
“I was blessed to be born in Israel,” she says. “Israel is facing difficult times these days.
But the University of Haifa is an island of sanity. It represents a real shared society, with a mosaic of different ethnic groups, which represents Israeli society.”
Maroun’s life is notable in more than one respect. Only one of them is as a reminder that things are rarely as simple as they are portrayed.