ANALYSIS / How the Government Plans to Legalize Banned Stipends for Haredis

Bill granting allowances for yeshiva students, outlawed by High Court as discriminatory, to be reworded in efforts to circumvent the ruling.

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation will discuss on Sunday a bill proposed by MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) that would allocate income allowances to full-time yeshiva students that meet certain criteria. However, during an overnight meeting on Saturday between Gafni, Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz and Interior Minister Eli Yishai, that the vote on the bill, originally scheduled for Sunday, would be postponed. 

The proposal has already been outlawed by the High Court of Justice on the grounds that it discriminates against non-Haredi university students, who do not receive government allowances.

gafni - Emil Salman - October 22 2010
Emil Salman

On Saturday, it was announced that the bill would be modified so that it applies to all students, rather than just yeshiva students, but under very specific criteria. In reality, the amended bill would only benefit a few hundred non-Haredi students in Israel.

According to the criteria to be set by the government, those eligible for the stipends will be students with at least three children and no other source of income. To be eligible, the students cannot own a vehicle or an apartment.

"These students will need to be identified with tweezers," said one person involved in drafting the law. "We estimate that there are only a few hundred eligible students, perhaps less."

Opponents of the bill say it is intended to circumvent the High Court of Justice decision in June that banned income stipends for yeshiva students. Gafni's intention to bring the bill for a vote on Sunday sparked outrage among government ministers, including Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar (Likud).

"This is a bad bill for the country and the Israeli economy," Sa'ar said. "It is not right to accept legislative dictates in a haphazard way."

The Labor and Yisrael Beiteinu parties announced on Saturday that their ministers would vote against the bill.

Every party has two members on the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, which includes a total of 19 ministers, and committee decisions are often based on understandings between various coalition factions.

Over the weekend, Steinitz was given the task of drafting the bill in such a way that it would not defy the High Court decision and would dissipate the fierce opposition of many government ministers. The government is expected to announce on Sunday the establishment of a group of ministers that would re-examine the wording of the law.

One of the central problems the government will be required to deal with is the intention of ultra-Orthodox MKs to include the proposed income allowances bill in the budget and arrangements bill vote this week, which would force the government to support the original version or face the dissolution of the coalition. Steinitz met on Saturday night with Yishai, Gafni and deputy finance minister Yitzhak Cohen (Shas) in order to formulate an agreed upon draft of the bill.

At the meeting, held at Steinitz's home, it was decided to adopt three principles on the matter: A. The status quo for income allowances for yeshiva students would remain as it was for the 20 years before the High Court decision in June; B. The government would work for legislation to this effect, that meets the test of the High Court; C. To deflect accusations that the bill is discriminatory, the bill would cover all students who meet the criteria: a parent of least three children and no other source of income.

Yishai announced on Saturday that he supports applying the law to the general student population. But the bill was sharply criticized over the weekend, mainly in regard to the issue of unemployment in the ultra-Orthodox community. Opponents argued that providing yeshiva students with meager allowances encourages them to remain outside the workforce and perpetuates poverty within the ultra-Orthodox community.

Social Affairs Minister Yitzhak Herzog (Labor) said on Saturday that the bill sabotages attempts to incorporate the ultra-Orthodox sector in the job market.

"If you care for the difficulties of one sector, there is no reason to discriminate against another sector," he said.

The Yisrael Beiteinu party released a statement saying that the proposed bill "perpetuates unemployment and damages Israeli economy."

"Furthermore, the bill bluntly discriminates against Israeli university students who serve in the army and pay their taxes.If Netanyahu circumvents the High Court of Justice, he will be circumventing democracy and showing contempt for the public."

Gafni responded to the criticism, saying that the bill would not circumvent the High Court but would instead implement the court's order. He said that a recent Finance Committee discussion found that students from the general population receive more funds than yeshiva students.

"So claims of discrimination are wrong, and actually to the contrary," he said.