No room at the dorm

A peculiar court decision rules that preferences may not be given to students who've done national service.

empty dorm 88 (photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
empty dorm 88
(photo credit: Courtesy Photo)
In an open letter published on August 20, soldiers and officers of Brigade 551 wrote that the military and political leadership's conduct of the fighting in Lebanon made them "feel as if someone had spit in our faces." Ironically, three days earlier, someone really did spit in their faces: the honorable Judge Ron Sokol of the Haifa District Court, who authored an August 17 ruling barring Haifa University from using army service as one of its criteria for allocating dorm rooms. Like most Israeli universities, Haifa has fewer dorm rooms than students, so it allocates the rooms via a point system. Students receive points for various factors: academic achievement, how far from the university they live, their financial situation, physical disabilities, family size, military or civilian national service, and more. The students with the highest totals get the dorms. Three Arab students and Adalah, an Arab advocacy organization, sued the university over these criteria, arguing that including national service on the list discriminates against Arab students, who usually eschew such service. The university responded that it was not, heaven forbid, trying to express gratitude or appreciation for those who serve; it was merely trying to compensate for a cold economic fact: People who spend two to three years in unpaid national service are at a financial disadvantage compared to people who could have spent those years working and saving money. True, the law grants demobilized soldiers certain economic benefits, but those benefits are worth less than even a minimum-wage job would pay over an equivalent period. Thus an 18-year-old Arab high school graduate and a 21-yearold ex-soldier with identical parental incomes are not financially equal; the exsoldier is economically worse off. Leshem, however, dismissed this argument. If the point of the service criterion is economic, he said, then it should not exist, because service has no inherent connection to financial need. The lost years of earning - i.e. the fact that the 18-year-old Arab and the 21-year-old ex-soldier are not financially equivalent - do not concern him; what does concern him is that even well-off students receive points for military service, thereby, in his eyes, contradicting the financial need criteria. Yet these applicants, too, have sacrificed three years of working life that can never be recovered. LEST ANYONE have any doubt, Leshem stressed that he would also have deemed the "moral" argument untenable. While governments do have a legitimate interest in encouraging service by offering tangible expressions of appreciation, he wrote, university dorms are not the place to do so (just why universities are the wrong place to inculcate a service ethic is left unexplained). Yet even if they were, he continued, limiting the criteria to "national" service, military or civilian, would be unacceptable, since this would discriminate against applicants who contribute to society in unspecified "other ways." Leshem also accepted Adalah's argument that the law already specifies the full range of financial benefits to which ex-soldiers are entitled, and the university has no right to add to this list. This, as the university noted, is a strange argument: The law also grants various economic benefits to, for instance, the poor and the handicapped, yet no one would argue that these benefits are exhaustive, and that state-funded universities should therefore be barred from considering financial need or physical disability when allocating dorm space. It is hard to explain why demobilized soldiers should be the only legal category subject to this restriction. BUT THE most outrageous part of the ruling was Leshem's finding that even absent all these other issues, the service criterion would still be illegal, because it discriminates against Arabs. Had the criterion been limited to military service, this judgment would have been understandable: The army is not open to most Arabs, and penalizing people for failing to do something that they have no legal way of doing would indeed be discriminatory. However, as Leshem himself noted, civilian national service is open to Arabs, and "more than a few" choose to participate in it. Nevertheless, he wrote, this criterion is discriminatory, because "the lion's share of the Arab public does not participate in either military service or national service." In other words, because the bulk of the Arab public freely chooses not to contribute to the state via national service, state-funded institutions such as Haifa University may not reward Arabs and Jews who do contribute in this manner! But the ruling is even worse than that - because not only does the Arab public largely avoid national service, it has fought tooth and nail against repeated government initiatives to eliminate this "discrimination." Currently, while military service is compulsory for those subject to the draft, civilian national service is voluntary. Moreover, since most volunteers have traditionally been religious Zionist women, most national service programs are aimed at this group; space in other programs is limited, and acceptance is not guaranteed. (Someone who applied and was rejected would thus obviously have solid grounds for claiming discrimination; however, the plaintiffs never applied.) To resolve this problem, successive governments have discussed instituting either mandatory national service for everyone not subject to the draft, or an expanded voluntary program with sufficient space for everyone exempt from the army. Yet every time this idea arose, it was scrapped due to vehement opposition from Israeli Arab leaders. Thus Leshem's verdict, far from eliminating discrimination, actually creates a far worse type of discrimination: By declaring that service and non-service deserve equal benefits, it effectively replaces "discrimination" against those who do not serve with discrimination against those who do. And it thereby actively rewards communal shirking. In an ideal world, this travesty of a verdict would be overturned on appeal. However, given the Supreme Court's track record, that seems highly unlikely. Therefore, the Knesset must act to rectify this outrage: It should immediately pass legislation explicitly authorizing state-funded institutions to grant preferential treatment to those who serve. Otherwise, Brigade 551 will have every right to feel that not just Leshem, but the entire government is spitting in its face.