The Haifa District Court has ruled that the University of Haifa must change its criteria for granting dormitory rooms to students by eliminating the preferential treatment it granted former soldiers and reservists.
"The practical result of including military service as a criterion for allocating dormitory space is discrimination against the Israeli Arabs," wrote Judge Ron Sokol. The ruling was handed down last Thursday.
The petition was submitted last year by three Israeli Arab female students and Adalah, the Legal Center for the Rights of the Arab Minority in Israel. The head of Adalah, attorney Hassan Jabarin, said the ruling would have widespread consequences because there were many situations in which the criterion of military service was applied even though it was irrelevant to the reasons the benefit was being granted.
This was exactly the situation regarding the University of Haifa, the petitioners maintained. The allocation of dormitory rooms was meant to fulfill a purpose: it enabled students to spend less time in travelling to school, and, since the dormitory were cheaper than market rents, enabled poorer students to attend university. As the criterion of military service was irrelevant to these aims, it was therefore discriminatory. It was also discriminatory because most Arab men and all Arab women do not serve in the army.
The decision as to how to distribute the dormitory space is made by a special university committee headed by the dean. In 2005, more than half of the university's 1,113 dormitory beds were allocated to special groups including the disabled and outstanding students. The remaining 517 spaces were available to the rest of the student population.
The committee established a set of criteria, each worth a certain number of points, to be applied to all applicants. These included distance from school, academic achievement and children of single-parent families. In order to be given a dormitory room, students had to garner at least 57 points.
Military service was worth 20 points. Thus, a student who had served in the army automatically received almost 40 percent of the required minimum. A former soldier who served in the reserves automatically received close to 50%.
The university argued that it was a private institution that was entitled to make up its own rules. It also argued that the criterion of military service was not irrelevant because men and women who had not served in the army had time to work and save up money for their studies, which gave them a financial advantage over those who had served.
Sokol ruled that the university was a dual institution - part private and part public. It was public in the sense that it received state funding and had a monopoly on granting academic degrees that were important for the students and for society. As such, it was bound by the rules of public administrative law, including the requirement of equality.
The court also ruled that, while it was legitimate for the university to apply economic criteria in granting dormitory space, there was no basis to its assumption that all students who had served in the army had less money for schooling than those who had not. The economic criteria had to be applied on an individual basis so that each student's situation could be considered on its own merits.
The court ordered the university to publish new criteria for dormitory eligibility and to exclude military service from those criteria. It also ordered the university to pay court costs of NIS 10,000 to the petitioners.