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An Inequitable Tuition Plan

Israel’s cabinet, by a one-vote margin, has approved a two-tier tuition plan for higher education and in so doing again called into question the status of the country’s 760,000 Arab citizens. The plan, ostensibly aimed at easing the financial crisis facing the nation’s universities, would in fact blatantly discriminate against Arab students while doing nothing to solve the deficit problem. This has sparked a rare show of solidarity on the campuses, with Jewish students joining Arabs to protest the unequal fees.

The tuition plan would cut the annual fees for students who are military veterans from $1,380 a year to $1,050, while increasing the costs for non-veterans by 50%, to $1,550. But non-veterans is pretty much a code word for Arabs, who in most cases--exceptions are members of the small Druze and Circassian communities--are exempt from military service. About 4,000 Israeli-Arabs are enrolled in universities, out of a total college population of about 65,000.

Special benefits for veterans are not, of course, unique to Israel. The issue raised by the tuition plan, though, is not economic favoritism for the many, but economic liabilities for the few. Israeli-Arabs don’t do military service because Israel’s major enemies are Arab, and both the state and its Arab citizens prefer to avoid possible problems of affinity and loyalty. In these circumstances it is flagrantly unfair to use state-imposed disqualification from military service as the basis for imposing unequal higher education fees.

Israel prides itself on being the Middle East’s only democracy. Presumably that implies equal opportunity for all its citizens. For centuries, Jews who lived in Arab countries were forced to pay special taxes, reflecting their officially inferior status. Elsewhere, most notoriously in Russia, Jewish access to higher education was severely restricted. The dual-tuition plan is a sad echo of these earlier wrongs. Several major universities say they will refuse to put it into force. That reflects a sense of intellectual and moral decency that politicians would do well to be guided by.

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