JERUSALEM — Israeli Arab university students boycotted classes, and hundreds of their Jewish peers protested Monday in several cities over what they termed a blatantly discriminatory government decision to charge a 50% tuition premium to students who are not veterans of the armed forces.
Although the move could affect thousands of Jewish students, it is considered a particular hardship on about 4,000 Arab students who are exempt from compulsory military service on security grounds.
Hebrew University and Haifa University, which have the largest Arab student populations, said they will refuse to implement the two-tier tuition system, adopted 12-11 in the Cabinet on Sunday over the strong objection of Education Minister Yitzhak Navon. Navon called the decision a "threat to democracy."
The Cabinet split along party lines: The rightist Likud Bloc and the Religious Party ministers voted for the fee change, and the centrist Labor Alignment and its allied parties voted against.
If the decision stands, tuition for military veterans starting next fall will drop from the equivalent of $1,380 to $1,050 per year while fees for non-veterans will rise from $1,380 to $1,550.
There are about 65,000 university students in Israel, of whom more than 80% are believed to be veterans. Israelis are usually drafted immediately after high school, with men serving a mandatory three years and women serving two years, unless exempted.
Navon, a Labor Alignment leader, called on Atty. Gen. Yosef Harish to rule on the legality of the move, and David Berman, chairman of the National Union of Students, said he will appeal the Cabinet decision to the High Court of Justice.
"The decision stinks, and we must not allow it," Berman said.
Scuffles Break Out
Some rightist student groups supported the decision, however. At Hebrew University, scuffles broke out during a large rally Monday at an area of the campus known as the Forum.
Arab students wore hand-lettered badges with the figure "$1,550" and the words: "Second class citizen."
"Apartheid in the Universities: Stop the Nationalistic Conspiracy," read a poster on a table set up by the centrist "Offek" student group, which now controls the student council.
But across the way, the rightist "Gilad" group, considered a strong contender to unseat its centrist rivals in student elections later this week, defended the Cabinet move.
"I served the country for three years in a combat unit," said Ronen Tov, 23, a second-year business administration student. "In these three years, the Arabs could go work and make a lot more than this $500" difference in tuition fees.
Evan Feuer, a new immigrant from Cherry Hill, N.J., who is exempted from military service until he finishes university, said he will have to pay the higher tuition, too, and that if the Arabs want to, they can always volunteer for the Israeli army. "They're always saying 'Give us, give us, give us.' But they won't do anything in return," Feuer said.
An army spokesman said the bulk of Israel's 760,000 Arab citizens are exempt from the draft by decision of the defense minister. An exception are the Israeli Druze. Members of an arcane, offshoot sect of Islam, they are subject to the draft under a 30-year-old agreement made by Israeli statesman David Ben-Gurion and Druze leaders of that time.
Other Arabs can volunteer for service, and if they pass required security examinations, they are accepted, the spokesman said. Members of Israel's tiny, Arabic-speaking Circassian community and of certain Bedouin tribes serve regularly in the army. But with few exceptions, the country's Palestinian Arabs do not.
The fact that they do not serve already prevents Israeli Arabs from holding a number of jobs here that are reserved for army veterans. Israeli officials have also said that Israeli Arab municipalities receive smaller budgets than Jewish towns in part because the Palestinians do not go into the army.
The Cabinet resolution permits students who have done some form of alternate national service to enjoy the lower tuition fees. However, the army spokesman acknowledged that while there are national service programs for groups such as religious women, who do not serve in the army, there are no such programs for Arabs.
Ahmad Hejazi, a 20-year-old Israeli Arab from Tamra studying general sciences at Hebrew University, said he worked as a volunteer for a year in a well-known program meant to break down barriers between Jewish and Arab high school students. But the Israeli authorities refused to recognize the activity as national service.
Meanwhile, he said, "For me it's very hard to serve in the army because, first of all, if I serve, I will have to fight my family, my brothers in the Arab world."
It would be different, he said, if the army was solely in the business of defending the country. "But I don't see the Israeli army like that. To me, the Israeli army is trying to occupy and to repress other people, not to defend."
Rare Meeting Place