Israeli academics fight 'racist' university test

From the archive (legacy material)

Chris McGreal in Jerusalem | The Guardian | 1 December 2003

Israeli academics are threatening to call for an international boycott of their own university heads if admission tests alleged to have curbed the number of Arab students are reintroduced.
The heads of the country’s five universities last week announced that they would bring back controversial psychometric testing that favours middle-class Jewish students.
The boycott would include rejecting academic papers from individual heads.
The psychometric assessments were dropped more than a year ago, resulting in a big increase in the admission of Arab students. A statement by university heads justifying the tests has reinforced the view that the move is racist. Arab lecturers at Israeli universities met at the weekend to decide how to respond.
Nadim Rouhana, a psychology professor at Tel Aviv university and director of the association of Arab professors, said: “It’s an openly racist policy, but what’s more dangerous is that it’s being conceived and conducted by what should be considered the centres of enlightenment, the centres of education. I will be one of those to call for a boycott in Europe and the world.”
The psychometric tests were dropped in the hope of benefiting poorer Jews whose families originate from the Middle East. They lost out in tests skewed in favour of wealthier Jews of European origin.
But the main beneficiaries were Arab Israelis poorly versed in test subjects such as Jewish history and Hebrew literature. At Tel Aviv university the number of Arabs studying medicine rose sixfold.
University heads did not refer to Arabs in their statement announcing the reintroduction of the tests but spoke instead of students from poor Jewish families. It said: “Admissions policies based on grades do not make studies more accessible to students from the periphery. Since the number of places available in university enrolment has not risen, the acceptance of one population nudges out another population.”
Arab lecturers say the wording refers to Arab students replacing Jews. But the universities deny any such intent.
“The psychometric tests are relevant to the whole population. They are held in six languages, including Arabic. The sections dealing with culture do not have an inclination toward Jewish culture,” said the association of Israeli university heads. But the universities cannot explain why the number of Arab students increased when tests were dropped.
Among those who question the claim is Hassan Jabareen, director of the Israeli Arab legal rights centre, Adalah.
“The whole system is sys tematically biased,” he said. “Twenty years ago I sat one of these tests at Tel Aviv university. I was asked who Einstein was. I said he was the biggest scientist in the world. But they said no, we gave a different first name. We are speaking of a singer from Tel Aviv.”
The controversy has flared as Israel tries to head off a growing foreign boycott of its universities by accusing those behind it of anti-Semitism or holding Israel to a higher standard than other countries.
“It’s ironic,” said Prof Rouhana. “They [university presidents] don’t see the connection between the boycott and their actions.”