The Shas Party was too happy for words on Wednesday, when the Knesset passed the second and third readings of a law exempting Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) schools from teaching the core curriculum. The law enables the Education Ministry to continue funding Haredi yeshiva high schools to the tune of 60% of what ordinary high schools receive. Thus after almost 60 years in which the state funded these yeshivas in violation of the law, as of the upcoming school year, this funding will be completely legal.
"Blessed is He who performed this miracle for us," Deputy Prime Minister Eli Yishai effused in an interview with the ultra-Orthodox radio station Kol Hai. "This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it," he added, quoting the Psalms. He also said he expects United Torah Judaism's newspapers to admit that the rival party is "lucky Shas is in the coalition."
"From the perspective of the ultra-Orthodox public, this is the second most important law after the Tal Law," which exempts yeshiva students from military service, explained Haredi political commentator Yaakov Rivlin.
The core curriculum consists of the basic subjects the Education Ministry requires every educational institute to teach, such as math, English and civics. Until yesterday, the State Education Law forbade state financing of schools that did not teach this curriculum. The fact that a great many ultra-Orthodox schools receive government funding in contravention of this law was first exposed by researcher Varda Shiffer, who presented her findings in "Ultra-Orthodox '98," a series of investigative reports in Haaretz.
Haredi elementary schools teach few non-Torah subjects, but Haredi yeshiva high schools teach none at all. Thus various parties, including former Shinui Knesset member Joseph Paritzky and the high school teachers' union, petitioned the High Court of Justice against the illegal funding of these schools. Under the High Court's ruling, if the law had not been passed on Wednesday, state funding of ultra-Orthodox high schools would have been discontinued as of the coming school year. For this reason, getting the law passed became Yishai's top priority during the past few weeks.
The law defines a new type of school - "culturally unique" schools. These educational institutions, meaning the ultra-Orthodox yeshiva high schools, will receive 60% of the funding per student given to regular high schools, even though they will not be teaching the core curriculum. They will not be able to receive funding beyond this from the Education Ministry, but will receive additional funding from their municipalities.
It is difficult to overstate the efforts Shas invested in getting this law passed promptly. In order to bring it to a vote on Wednesday, it had to forwarded to the plenum on Tuesday. But the final text was not ready, so ultra-Orthodox Knesset members filibustered Tuesday's Knesset session to keep it going until 9:00 P.M. Moreover, Wednesdays are usually devoted to bills in preliminary reading. But Shas obtained a special dispensation from Knesset Speaker Dalia Itzik to present the core curriculum exemption law for its second and third readings. Ultra-Orthodox sources said this haste was due to fear that something would go awry in the coalition by next week.
The law passed mainly thanks to the votes of ultra-Orthodox and Arab MKs. Members of the Kadima and Labor factions absented themselves from the plenum. The law was opposed by the Meretz faction and Labor's Ophir Pines-Paz. "This law will perpetuate the ignorance and benightedness of yeshiva students with state funding," said Meretz faction chair MK Zahava Gal-On. Attorney Rabbi Gilad Kariv, of the Reform Movement's Israel Religious Action Center, said the law sentences ultra-Orthodox youth to inability to integrate into the work force.
Wednesday's vote on the law was also made possible by Shas's decision to refrain from voting against Labor MK Avishay Braverman's appointment as chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee. In exchange, the coalition assisted Shas with the core curriculum law.
Earlier, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert's representatives had offered Yishai an increase of NIS 250 million in the budget for child allowances in exchange for his support of Braverman's appointment. That offer was made on the eve of the Finance Committee's vote on the appointment, because the coalition was afraid it did not have a majority. But Yishai refused, sticking to his demand for an NIS 1-1.5 billion increase in child allowances.
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