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Why is a 19-year-old ultra-Orthodox Jew considered more mature than a 19-year-old Arab? Arab high school graduates seeking to enroll in the University of Haifa's physical therapy department have been wondering that - the department states that "registration is for candidates aged 20 and over only." However, the university has a special program for 19-year-old ultra-Orthodox students.

R. is a 19-year-old resident of Wadi Ara. "I have all the qualifications, but the age barrier is keeping me from registering," she said.

Hundreds of other prospective Arab students have hit this wall as well, not only in the physical therapy department but also in other para-medical professions and the medical schools.

R. and her parents are particularly annoyed that the University of Haifa has a special physical therapy program for 19-year-olds, but it is open only to ultra-Orthodox Jews.

R. and others contacted MK Ahmed Tibi (United Arab List-Ta'al), who sent a letter to University of Haifa president Professor Aaron Ben-Ze'ev this week.

"Giving ultra-Orthodox students permission to enroll at age 19 underlines the discrimination against Arab applicants, since the justification for an exception for a specific group of Jews should justify even more so an exception for Arabs."

The University of Haifa rejected the discrimination claims, responding that all students face the same enrollment procedures for the regular physical therapy department, regardless of sector, community or religion.

"The program in question, which was initiated at the request of the Planning and Budgeting Committee of the Council for Higher Education, is intended for the ultra-Orthodox community and is a unique program that offers students homogeneous classes (the classes are held at the university extension in Bnai Brak). Therefore only this program could be suited to students who are 19."

Mature students only

About two weeks ago, the Tel Aviv District Court rejected a petition by Adallah - The Legal Center for Minority Rights in Israel against the minimum age at the Tel Aviv University medical school.

Attorney Sawsan Zahar filed the petition on behalf of the chairman of the Tel Aviv University Arab Students Committee, Jubran Abd al-Fattah and the chairman of the National Union of Arab Students in Israel, Mamdouh Aghbariyeh.

Tel Aviv University gave two justifications for the age limit: It is necessary to make sure students are mature, and it is not applicable to people selected for the Israel Defense Forces Atuda program.

Due to national needs, this program obliges the university to guarantee places for outstanding students who wish to complete degrees prior to performing relatively lengthy military service.

Zahar argued that the university's justifications are not rational.

If there is an age restriction to ensure students are mature, why does it not apply to students in the Atuda program, she asked.

The court rejected the petition, since it did not name specific petitioners. Adallah is considering appealing..