JERUSALEM — Israeli medical student Mohammad Hijazi seems the ideal candidate to alleviate the country's looming doctor shortage.
He graduated first in his high school class, scored in the top 5% of Israel's version of the SAT and rounded out his resume by founding a grass-roots organization that encourages blood donation.
Yet for the four years he applied to all five of Israel's medical schools, Hijazi was repeatedly rejected. Officials told him he kept failing the pre-admission personality interview, but the 25-year-old Arab Israeli suspects another reason: He believes that recent changes in the enrollment process are designed to discourage non-Jewish applicants.
"And it works," said Hijazi, 25, who is now pursuing a medical degree in Poland.
High enrollment in medical schools has long been a rare success story for Israel's 1.6 million Arab Israelis, who complain of discrimination by the government in many spheres of their lives.
Nationwide, an estimated 19% of medical school students are Arab, according to a 2009 parliamentary study. The ratio is in line with Israel's Arab population, which is about 20%, and is impressive considering Arabs account for just 9% of the total number of university students and about 6% of government employees.
Arab activists say the rising number of Arabs in medical schools over the last two decades has alarmed Israeli officials and led to an effort to restrict enrollment.
For the last six years, most medical school programs have required that applicants be at least 20. School officials say the rule was adopted to ensure a greater maturity among applicants. Critics, however, say it chiefly affects Arabs because most Jewish students begin college after a compulsory two- or three-year stint in the military; most Arabs don't serve in the military.
Rather than wait two years after graduating from high school to begin their studies, many Arab Israeli students opt to enroll in colleges in the West Bank or abroad, or choose a different field of study. (Unlike in the U.S., doctor-training programs in Israel begin at the undergraduate level.)
"The rule has the effect of discouraging Arabs from enrolling in medical schools," said attorney Sawsan Zaher of Adalah, an Israeli group that works against discrimination of Arabs.
Medical school officials dispute that assertion.
"There is absolutely no discrimination here," said Yossi Mekori, dean of Tel Aviv University's medical school. He said 30% of the university's medical school students are Arab.
"The numbers speak the truth," he said. "The minimum age is not directed against Arabs but is a solid academic decision."
The debate comes as Israel faces a chronic shortage of medical professionals. Doctors and nurses have gone on strike several times over the last two years to protest long hours, low pay and understaffing. Government studies suggest the ratio of doctors per 1,000 Israelis will drop to 2.7 in 2020 from 3.7 in 2000.
Although Israel enjoyed a surplus of doctors in the 1990s thanks to the flood of Russian immigrants, many of whom held professional degrees, the nation's medical schools are producing only about half the number of new doctors needed each year, said Jamal Zahalka, an Arab member of parliament and pharmacist.
Schools are racing to expand their programs, but he charged that the shortage of spaces is leading some schools to try to reserve slots for Jewish students, who they worry will study abroad and perhaps never return. Already, Israel is combating a brain drain of medical professionals lured away by higher salaries in Europe or the United States.
"They're worried that if they have too many Arab students it will come at the expense of Jewish students," Zahalka said. "They don't want Jewish students going abroad and maybe staying there. They don't care if we do."
Officials at Ben-Gurion University of the Negev say they recruit Arab high school students for a special program that enrolls about 30 Arabs a year.
"It's the opposite," said Health Sciences Faculty Dean Gabi Schreiber. "We are encouraging Arabs. But we've found that applicants who are not mature enough do not succeed in the program."
Zaher, the attorney, disputed the nationwide enrollment estimates, saying Arabs made up only about 13% of medical students.
She and others also complained that the age rule is not uniformly applied, noting that 18-year-old Jewish students are able to enroll in medical schools through an army program that allows them to study first and complete army service after graduation.
"If they are finding that some Jewish students are mature enough at 18 to be admitted, clearly this is an issue of discrimination," she said.
Zaher says the pre-admission interview, a rigorous, two-day process in which applicants are screened and questioned by a panel of experts, is sufficient to determine maturity of individuals.
But that didn't help Hijazi, the Israeli student in Poland, who said the interview questions are slanted to favor Hebrew-speaking Jewish applicants who had served in the army.
He said he'll graduate next year and plans to train as a pediatric cardiologist. But it's unclear whether he'll practice in his native country, which needs his expertise. Said Hijazi, "I don't feel the desire to come back to Israel for residency."
Batsheva Sobelman in The Times' Jerusalem bureau contributed to this report.