Court overturns Haifa University’s discriminatory policy on student dorms

I’lam, the only media centre for the Arab minority in Israel, issues a monthly “Alternative News Briefing” to journalists and others interested in the region as a corrective to the distorted coverage of events affecting Israel’s Arab citizens by the Israeli media.

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    After nearly a year of deliberations, Haifa District Court issued a ruling cancelling regulations at Haifa University that gave preferential treatment to Jewish students needing accommodation over Arab students.

    The university, roughly a fifth of whose students are Arabs, tried to conceal the discrimination by arguing that in allocating housing it was preferring students who had completed their army service. However, the court accepted the argument of the Adalah legal centre that because very few Arab citizens do military service this regulation was being used in effect to discriminate against Arab students.

    Instead the court demanded that Haifa University use economic criteria only in determining the allocation of accommodation to students. In consequence, the university is likely to find that, by ending a points system that gives especial weight to military service, Arab students are entitled to a large share of dorm places as their families are disproprtionately poorer.

    Adalah took up the case of three women students refused accommodation even though they were from poor families, lived far from the university and had limited public transport options. The discrimination against Arab women students was particularly clear, argued Adalah, because religious Jewish women received an equal number of points as discharged soldiers, even though they do not serve in the army.

    Jewish citizens are offered a wide range of benefits not available to most Arab citizens based on completion of army service, from preferential terms for loans and mortgages, entry to special housing projects, and access to employment that falls under the broad category of security-related work. The jurist David Kretzmer has called these benefits a form of “covert discrimination” against Arab citizens.

    Haifa University argued it was basing its right to allocate extra points for housing to former soldiers on the 1984 Absorption of Discharged Soldiers Law. Under the law, former soldiers are entitled to a wide-ranging package of social and economic benefits, including housing and education rights. Adalah observed that the law did not apply to university housing, which should be allocated based on economic need.

    Adalah has two further petitions before the Supreme Court challenging the use of the law to offer extra benefits to discharged soldiers. One has been submitted against the Housing Ministry to stop it allocating land in a discriminatory manner.

    However, Suhad Bishara, a lawyer with Adalah, is not hopeful that the Haifa court’s decision will set a precedent for the Supreme Court. “I’m afraid that it will not end the state’s use of military service as an instrument for discriminating against Arabs,” she added.

    Other universities in Israel, all of which use military service as a criterion in allocating student accommodation, were said to be studying the ruling.

    Haifa is reported to be reluctant to implement the decision. A spokesman, Dr Amir Gilat, said the university was considering an appeal. In the meantime, it appears to have no plans to change its practices. Gilat said this year’s places for the dorms had already been assigned and the decision could not be reversed by the university.

    Arabs face many other problems in the Israeli university system:

    * entry requirements make it much harder for them to gain access to higher education. Only 8 per cent of the student population is Arab, even though they comprise a quarter of that age group.

    * Less than 1 per cent of teachers at universities are Arab.

    * Successive Israeli governments have refused to establish a university in an Arab town, or create one that teaches in Arabic.

    * Student demonstrations have to be licensed by the university authorities, and this requirement has been abused to prevent Arab students from staging protests on campus. Any who do usually face harsh punishments, including having their degrees withheld.

    I’lam Media Center for Arab Palestinians in Israel is a non-profit organization based in Nazareth. It was founded in 2000, by a group of Arab journalists and academics. As the only Arab Palestinian media organization in Israel, I’lam is deeply committed to the democratization of media policies, media practices, and the media landscape in Israel.