An Israeli government watchdog group wrote a letter to Education Minister Shay Piron on Wednesday protesting Haifa University's decision to give students three additional vacation days for Christian and Arab holidays.
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As Haaretz reported, a special committee of the university's senate voted to add vacation days on the most important Christian, Muslim and Druze holidays: Christmas, Eid al Fitr, which comes at the end of the Ramadan fast, and Eid al Adha, or "the Feast of the Sacrifice." The new vacation days will not come at the expense of those for Jewish holidays or result in fewer days of classes. Haifa University is the first institution of higher education in Israel to provide vacation days for non-Jewish holidays.
Arie Avneri, the chairman of Ometz, the group behind the letter, wrote to Piron, "We do not wish to dispute a university's right to make strange and possibly illegal decisions that benefit some students and harm others. But this decision will lead to a more serious problem and open a gateway to new demands that center on religious belief rather than academic needs.
"Following the decision, Muslim students can demand a mosque be built for them to pray on campus; the Christians will demand a church be built, and the Druze will demand a house of prayer for their faith," Avneri wrote. "And of course, everything will be done at the expense of the university budget, which is mostly funded by the Council for Higher Education, which is your ministry's responsibility."
"Ometz thinks the Council for Higher Education should examine the legality of the unusual step taken by Haifa University and take one of the following decisions: proportional reduction of tuition fees; the cancellation of the extra 'freedom of religion' holiday days, or the application of the new practice to every university in Israel at the expense of the state budget," Avneri wrote.
Haifa University responded with a statement saying, "We are very proud of the fact that the university is spearheading this move. The decision does not have a detrimental effect on the number of study days and does not incur any extra costs. As a university that values academic excellence – as our achievements show – we believe it is possible to create excellence in an atmosphere of openness, tolerance and respect for other religions. It is a pity that the Ometz movement seeks to get into the media by any means necessary and is attacking such a welcome initiative."