Arab students only get a place in Israel’s universities because of affirmative action policies, a controversial Jewish Home lawmaker claimed during a contentious Knesset debate on Thursday.
MK Betzalel Smotrich got into a shouting match with Arab lawmaker MK Ahmad Tibi (Joint List) over the charitable tax status of Amnesty Israel, the Israeli branch of Amnesty International, which Smotrich argued was an anti-Israel organization that should not enjoy the tax benefits given to nonprofits.
The debate quickly grew tense, and veered off to an argument about affirmative action for Arabs in academia.
“Arab students are getting into the Technion because they’re lowering the minimum requirements due to affirmative action,” Smotrich charged.
Reports this week said the incoming freshman class at the Technion, Israel’s most prestigious technical college, included the highest proportion of Israeli Arabs ever, at some 25 percent of the class. Additionally, around 35% of female students in the incoming cohort are Arabs.
Smotrich continued, addressing Tibi: “You don’t pass the psychometric exam [Israel’s equivalent to the American SATs] to get into university. Your illiterates are grabbing the slots at the university. Show me one Arab who passed a psychometric test when entering academia.”
Tibi retorted that “what angers Smotrich are Arabs who excel, who achieve their accomplishments despite your racism, despite discrimination, despite the obstacles.
“They make every racist angry. These students excelled, and were accepted despite being Arabs and not because they’re Israeli Arabs. We’re proud of them,” Tibi said.
Raising his voice, Tibi chastised Smotrich: “Didn’t you read the history of your people? You know who they once talked about in this way? Jews who excelled in Europe, and because of [such talk] they acted against them. Aren’t you ashamed?”
MK Basel Ghattas, also of the Joint List, called Smotrich an “ignoramus,” leading Tibi to add: “No, Smotrich isn’t ignorant. He’s a fascist with [a high] IQ.”
The Technion has seen a steady rise in Arab enrollment over the past 25 years, from roughly 5% of the student body in 1990, according to Bloomberg News. Many of the students come from a system of independent Arab-Christian high schools, which collectively boast higher average student matriculation scores than the Jewish school systems.
Smotrich is no stranger to controversy, and has in the past has been criticized for comments deemed racist. He has called homosexuals an “abomination,” referred to himself as a “proud homophobe” on a 2015 panel at a Ramat Gan high school, and accused gays of controlling the media.
In 2006, he helped lead a “bestial parade” of farm animals through the streets of Jerusalem as a protest against the capital’s Gay Pride Parade.
In April, amid escalating Arab-Jewish tensions and a spate of terror attacks, he defended new mothers who asked hospital staff to place them in separate recuperation rooms from mothers of other ethnic backgrounds.
He tweeted at the time that while “my wife is truly no racist,” after giving birth “she wants to rest rather than have a hafla” — a feast often accompanied by music and dancing — “like the Arabs have after their births.”
When his tweet drew criticism, he posted: “It’s natural that my wife wouldn’t want to lie down [in a bed] next to a woman who just gave birth to a baby who might want to murder her baby twenty years from now.”
He then added that “Arabs are my enemies and that’s why I don’t enjoy being next to them.”
His wife, Revital, later told Channel 10 that she had “kicked an Arab obstetrician out of the [delivery] room. I want Jewish hands to touch my baby, and I wasn’t comfortable lying in the same room with an Arab woman. I refuse to have an Arab midwife, because for me giving birth is a Jewish and pure moment.”
The comments drew criticism from across the political spectrum, and opprobrium from his own party’s leader, Education Minister Naftali Bennett.