The University of Haifa, which has a large Arab student body, awards a scholarship to students who have passed their matriculation exam in subjects related to Judaism – which are mandatory in Jewish schools – effectively excluding Arab students who are not tested in these subjects.
The scholarship, in the amount of $2,000 a year, is funded by the Brazilian businessman Elie Horn, who contributes extensively to a number of organizations operating in ultra-Orthodox society, and is awarded to first-year students.
According to reports in ultra-Orthodox media outlets, Horn supports mainly groups that encourage increased Orthodox practice. The university is now working to persuade Horn to contribute $6 million a year for the next 20 years to the scholarship fund.
For comparison’s sake, the extent of scholarships the university offers to Arab students is estimated at around 2 million shekels a year (about $598,000) – although Arab students constituted 41 percent of the university’s student body as of 2018, according to the Council for Higher Education in Israel.
Apart from scholarships for ex-combat soldiers or other scholarships the state offers to students who recently finished their military service, “support for only Jews is not part of an appropriate agenda for an academic institution, certainly not one where 40 percent of the student body is Arab,” said a faculty member who opposes the scholarship.
At an open house the university held last week, representatives said that if a student doesn’t already meet the prerequisites, all they have to do is pass two courses on Judaism or Jewish culture and take part in a total of 24 hours of social activities such as field trips and conferences.
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A university representative explained that students who have not passed a matriculation exam in Bible or Talmudic studies can apply for the scholarship in their second year, as long as they have passed two courses in Judaism or Jewish culture with a grade of 80 or above.
The university’s website notes another criterion for receiving the scholarship in the second year: If there are too many qualified candidates for the scholarship, among the factors that will be weighed is “the fact that the applicant is an army veteran or has completed national service.”
Prof. Yuval Yonay, of the university’s sociology department, said that “Arab students who have to deal with the first year of university studies in Hebrew, in a Jewish environment, will have to take courses in a subject in which they have less cultural background, and get a grade of at least 80, in addition. Even then, they’ll have to pray that there aren’t too many Jewish military or national service veterans applying. In practical terms, this means taking the Arabs entirely out of the story.”
According to Ilan Saban of the university’s law school: “If the donor wants to give to donate to some particularlist-Jewish-religious-national causes– let him do so himself. The university should not adopt these goals.”
A senior university official defended the decision, saying that the demand that recipients of the scholarship study courses in Jewish religion and culture can “save entire areas of knowledge that are disappearing because of a lack of students.”
The scholarship was initially granted to veterans of army or national service. But after the Association for Civil Rights in Israel said the conditions went against the principle of equality among students, they were changed.
But the association said that the new conditions are even more discriminatory against non-Jewish students. “Before this a Druze student could win [the scholarship], but now the circle of discrimination has grown toward them as well,” said attorney Gadir Nicola, who filed a suit in the name of the NGO.
The university declined to explain the change in conditions for receiving the scholarship, and a university official told Haaretz that the decision had not been made official. As a result of the change, the Association for Civil Rights has filed an appeal against the university in the Haifa District Court, demanding that the prerequisites be rescinded, based on the law on students’ rights and the university’s general obligation to equality. The university said in response that it sees nothing wrong with earmarking funding for certain groups or goals, stating: “The scholarship you mention is intended for students who want to deepen their knowledge of Judaic studies and Jewish heritage, an area that has been in decline in recent years.”
The university said it has taken into consideration “those who do not have an appropriate background in Judaic studies and has decided that if they study courses from the list of Judaic studies courses (for free) set by the university, they will be considered to have met the prerequisite for acceptance to the program later."
For those who do not meet the prerequisites for acceptance for this scholarship, it added, "The University of Haifa has many other scholarships and we continue to work tirelessly to increase their number.”