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Meron Rapoport | Haaretz | December 13, 2006

The Israeli Bir Zeit?

Approximately 20 percent of the University of Haifa's student body is Arab, more than at any other Israeli university. "They call it the Israeli Bir Zeit University," says Holoud Badawi, a former leader of the Arab students at Haifa. "They say it's an Arab university and that gives it a poor image among Israeli students."

Lecturers whisper what Badawi says aloud. "This image scares the university a lot," says a Jewish lecturer. "People are afraid that students from the center of the country will be afraid to come to Haifa, that they will say they don't want to go to an Arab university. This is not specifically said here, but there are hints, references."

When Badawi was the leader of the Arab students, the relationship between Jews and Arabs was tense. It was in the early days of the second intifada. Since then, the university administration has made a huge effort to maintain calm on campus. University President Aaron Ben-Ze'ev recently even declared in public that this is one of his stated objectives. The university administration severely limited demonstrations and tried to avoid open confrontations with the Arab student leadership. It worked. The relatively heated protest held several weeks ago to protest the killings in Beit Hanun was an unusual event on campus.

However, a legal proceeding underway may upset this not-so-idyllic idyll. Ostensibly it is a marginal affair: student housing. The university dorms have 1,117 spots, but half are allocated to overseas students, outstanding students and students from other special categories. Only 517 spots remain open to the student body at large. In October 2005, the university published its criteria for receiving student housing, under which military service could provide a student with 20 points, approximately one-third of the minimum needed to receive university housing. A substantial share of the other criteria are also likely to give non-Arabs an advantage: anyone who lives north of Kiryat Shmona or south of Ashdod receives up to 28 points (most of the Arab students come from the Galilee); and academic excellence, which is not so simple for Arab students who must start studying Hebrew, can provide another 25 points. Only the financial distress criterion, which is worth 25 points, favors Arab students.

Badawi says the large number of points awarded for military service always bothered Arab students, because it made it very difficult for them to receive student housing. "We're not asking for affirmative action," says Badawi. "All we ever asked is that the criteria would be primarily financial. It would also help poor Mizrahi Jews as well as Arab students, who are at the bottom in terms of finances."

Badawi says the dorms are only part of the story. Arabs are subject to discrimination when it comes to scholarships and acceptance into top departments, she says. But the dormitories have become the symbol.

The financial issue

In late 2005, Adalah - The Legal Center for Arab Minority Rights in Israel retained Attorney Sawsan Zaher and appealed to the Haifa District Court against the large weight given to military service, arguing that it discriminates against Arab students. The university argued that this criterion is not discriminatory and that its sole intention is financially compensating students for the three years they lost in military service. This August, Judge Ron Sokol accepted Adalah's position. "Adding military service as a criterion for distributing student housing is in practice discrimination against Israeli Arabs," Judge Sokol wrote in his decision, and instructed the university to remove military service from its considerations.

The district court's decision does not affect many students - probably no more than several dozen. However, the university decided to appeal to the Supreme Court.

"Ostensibly, this is just a minor question," stated the appeal submitted by Attorney Yaakov Weinroth on behalf of the university. "But in practice, it is a question of utmost public importance, and that is an Israeli university's ability to consider the military or national service of students seeking to enroll."

This wording is slightly misleading, because most of the appeal evades the central question of whether the university sees military service as positive and worthy of encouragement, and its main claim is financial. The argument is that anyone who serves in the Israel Defense Forces faces a disadvantage compared to those who did not serve, because soldiers lose out on three years of earning. Removing this criterion would "punish" students who served in the army, it continues. The District Court rejected the argument, stating that economic status should be determined on an individual basis, since some students who served are in a better financial position than others who did not serve.

However, the university argues that the court did not grasp the matter thoroughly. "Even if a discharged soldier is in a slightly better economic situation than his colleague who did not serve," the appeal stated, "in financial terms, he could have been in a much better situation."

"The result of this ruling is unfair," explains Prof. Ariel Bendor, the university's dean of students. "A criterion cannot be removed because it works in favor of certain group. The court asked us to review each case individually, but we don't have an army of detectives to review each candidate. In any case, how can the University of Haifa be accused of discrimination when 30 percent of those who receive student housing are Arabs, even though they comprise only 20 percent of the student body?" he says. "I wouldn't have appealed if I thought the Arab students were truly discriminated against."

Fear of criticism

But not everyone at the University of Haifa feels the same way as Bendor. The university's Faculty of Law blog contained a very animated debate on the matter.

"The charge of hurting soldiers is a convenient 'hanger' for a variety of practices that favor Jews over Arabs," Dr. Ilan Saban, a lecturer, wrote. "If it is necessary to give army veterans preference in student housing," he writes, "then why not give them preference for scholarships or in university acceptance, or in reduced cafeteria prices? Why shouldn't private employers pay differential salaries? Why shouldn't landlords and restaurateurs also set separate rates?"

"There is a law that grants benefits to demobilized soldiers," wrote Saban. "If they want to provide them with additional benefits, this should be done by amending the law, not by giving nongovernmental bodies such as universities the option of 'amending' what the Knesset did not. This could be a very slippery slope toward discrimination."

As expected, Saban's arguments prompted sharp reactions.

"I come from a community on the northern confrontation line, from a family of six with an ailing mother and a father who is the sole provider," wrote an anonymous respondent. "And do you know why I didn't get student housing? Because one of those 18-year-old kids comes from a village with a lower socio-economic ranking than my community. I feel screwed, I feel like a fool. And you, on whose behalf I'm fighting, are spitting in my face and showing a lack of appreciation."

Dr. Doron Menashe, a colleague of Saban's in the law faculty, responded to him somewhat more politely: "True, it's impossible to quantify scientifically the value of military service, but clearly those who serve must be compensated. Adalah argued that the Arab sector's human rights were harmed, but I ask myself, why are they ignoring the harm to the soldiers' rights? Military service substantially limits the basic human rights of the soldiers; it sizably restricts their freedom of expression and individual autonomy."

Clearly, the key question is not what military service is worth, but whether the fact that Arabs do not serve in the army or perform national service should harm their rights to student housing. Menashe and his supporters feel that because the Arabs "choose" not to serve in the army or perform national service, then it is not discrimination when the university grants benefits to army veterans. Saban, however, thinks there is an unwritten agreement between the Arab citizens and the state whereby they, the Arabs, will not act against the state even though it stole their lands, and it, the state, will not require them to enlist in its army. It is convenient for everyone to adhere to this agreement, and therefore matters cannot be settled through discriminating in student housing allocation.

Saban says he is "very pleased with the ruling, but not pleased that the university is filing an appeal." Attorney Zaher of Adalah agrees: "We were surprised the university is appealing the ruling that it is discriminatory. We thought a quasi-public body like the university would work to correct the injustice. The appeal signifies agreement with the discrimination."

But Bendor is completely at peace with the appeal: "It's a controversial matter, and it's clear to me that part of the population would have criticized us had we not appealed, and there is criticism because we are appealing. Achieving quiet was not a consideration of ours."

Nevertheless, some at the university feel that fear of criticism is what motivated the University of Haifa to appeal.

"The University of Haifa has demonstrated an ambivalent attitude to the fact that it has a mixed Jewish-Arab campus," says one lecturer. "A large number of the Jews are disturbed by the fact that they hear a lot of Arabic at the university. It's hard for them to see gatherings of Arab students."

"I think there is a real fear that there will be too many Arab students in the dorms," says another lecturer. "It could scare away Jewish students. It seems to me that the university doesn't care if it loses the appeal; the main thing is that it can say - to donors as well as administrators - that it did its best to give preference to demobilized soldiers. Perhaps that is what will help its image as a 'Jewish-Israeli university.'"

Posted on 14-12-2006

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