Palestinians banned from seeking top student post at Israeli college

A student votes in campus elections

Issam Rimawi APA images

Palestinians have been barred from running for election for the post of student union president at Zefat Academic College in Safed in the Galilee region of historic Palestine. A decision taken by the student union at the college on 18 April has made running for the union’s top post conditional on having served in the Israeli military.

“It is clear that the decision aims to exclude Palestinian students, since Palestinians don’t serve in the Israeli army,” Khulood Abu Ahmad, a student at Zefat College, told The Electronic Intifada.

This step is only one in a long series of discriminatory and racist practices which Palestinian students at Zefat College have been confronting in recent years — including a rabbinical decree instructing Jewish residents in Safed not to rent houses to Palestinians, violent attacks on Palestinian students and the burning of their cars.

Racism on campus

“Although we have been witnessing racism in Safed and our lives as students have become a daily struggle, racism within the campus is worse than racism outside it,” Abu Ahmad explained. “The college is supposed to adhere to values of freedom of speech and to set an example in this regard to the larger society. And the students’ union is supposed to represent us as students and not to suppress us or exclude us or allow racist practices against us.

“The college claims that the student union is an autonomous organization and therefore they cannot interfere in its affairs. However, it is obvious that the student union relies on the college’s support on financial and administrative matters. Moreover, the college recognizes this organization as the body which represents the students and collaborates with it on this ground.”

Historically a large Palestinian city, many residents fled Safed during the Nakba, the wave of ethnic cleansing which preceded the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948. Today, it is estimated that 50 percent or more of students at Zefat are Palestinian.

Broader policy of Judaization

The establishment of this college in Safed is part of a broader policy of the Judaization of the Galilee. It was originally founded three decades ago as a regional branch of Bar Ilan University in Ramat Gan (beside Tel Aviv). A “Friends of Zefat Academic College” group, which raises funds for the institution, has appointed Avraham Katz-Oz, a former Israeli minister for agriculture, as its director. Katz-Oz is also active in the Council for a Beautiful Israel, a self-proclaimed environmental organization that boasts of “strategic collaboration” with the Israeli military.

If the move to exclude Palestinian students from the student union presidency proves successful in Zefat, the college would be following a trend previously set by a number of other Israeli institutions. The acceptance of military service is used by some universities as an eligibility requirement for scholarships and places in student residences within Israel (“Haifa District Court issues precedent-setting judgment that considering military service criterion in allocation of housing at Haifa University discriminates against Arab students,” Adalah, 22 August 2006).

Moreover, in July 2010, Israel’s parliament, the Knesset, passed a law which grants financial benefits such as free tuition for the first year of university to soldiers living in “national priority areas.” They include areas in the Galilee, as well as Israeli settlements in the occupied West Bank, which are illegal under international law (“New discriminatory laws and bills in Israel,” Adalah, June 2011 [PDF]).

Palestinian students at Zefat College have protested the military service decision. “We students have the right to our say in the affairs of the student union. This right shouldn’t be hampered by police intimidation or racist policies,” Abu Ahmad said.

“The college authorities do not see us as taking active part in the life of the campus,” she added. “The college wants to portray itself in a certain way, which appeals to donors. Therefore, it is interested in keeping us, the Arab students, as passive consumers who merely pay for tuition.”

Yara Sa’di is a postgraduate student and activist from Haifa.