Shas Chairman Eli Yishai and Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch
Shas Chairman Eli Yishai and Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch. Photo by Daniel Bar-On and Emil Salman
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The High Court of Justice yesterday ruled that the provision of state stipends to adult yeshiva students violates the principle of equality stipulated in the budget foundation law as well as legal precedents.

Students at kollel yeshivas, which cater to married men, are entitled to income support payments from the state, while similar stipends were abolished for students at nonreligious institutions of higher education in 2000.

A seven-person panel of justices ruled on the petition, which was submitted to the High Court in 2000 by former Jerusalem deputy mayor Ornan Yekutieli, who died before the case was heard. Attorney Gilad Barnea submitted the petition on behalf of a group led by Yekutieli.

The only dissenter among the justices was Justice Edmond Levy, who argued that the budget law reflects policies and goals that are entrusted to the cabinet and the Knesset, rather than the court.

Joining Court President Dorit Beinisch for the majority were justices Ayala Procaccia, Asher Dan Grunis, Miriam Naor, Salim Joubran and Esther Hayut.

In its responses to the petition, the state argued that that the underlying purpose of the allocation was not economic, but rather ideological, with the goal of encouraging religious study.

The court, however, ruled that the purpose of the stipend was clearly economic even if the income support also served to encourage religious study, and as such there is no justification for discriminating between yeshiva students and students at other institutions.

The justices based their ruling, in part, on the fact that the state welfare laws and regulations explicitly prohibit the payment of income support to students at institutions of higher education, post-secondary education, yeshivas and clergy training programs.

Beinisch wrote in the verdict that the purpose of the studies is not relevant to the issue of economic assistance. "The need for income support is identical whether the student is enrolled at an institution of higher education or a conservative institution of religious studies, or a married student at a kollel," she wrote, adding, "Because of their studies, none of these students can support themselves through work. But under the current legal situation only one of these groups is entitled to receive income support payments."

Procaccia added that the issue of distinguishing between students at kollel yeshivas and those at other educational institutions regarding welfare payments is a specific case of a wider and more general question of resolving the conflict between the duty of a multicultural society to respect the unique characteristics of various groups within that society, and the fundamental principle according to which all citizens must accept the underlying values of the government and share in the responsibilities and duties of every citizen. According to Procaccia, a social policy that extends support to a certain sector in order to relieve it of its common social duty, and not in order to facilitate full equality between it and the other sectors, damages and undermines the common social fabric.

Levy, who held the minority opinion, wrote: "Torah study is a commandment, and both the Knesset and the cabinet have asserted that it should be funded by placing on the public the burden of providing an income for Torah students. It is a values-based decision that is grounded in the recognition that Torah study is vital to the Jewish people, and I do not believe that the court has the authority to change it. In addition, very modest sums are allocated for this purpose, with the aim of ensuring only the most basic necessities."

Barnea, who submitted the petition to the High Court in 2000, said yesterday that the ruling was important in that it determined that the principle of equality can be used to strike down discriminatory items in the state budget. He lauded the court for its "courageous ruling," and for not being "deterred by the public aspects of its ruling."

Interior Minister and Shas party chairman Eli Yishai condemned the ruling, vowing to use the Knesset to redress the damage to yeshiva students. "The High Court ruling is a blow to the spiritual status quo of the nation of Israel," Yishai said.

Yishai said that Shas intends to introduce a bill that would maintain the status quo with regard to income support for married yeshiva students or alternatively to address the issue through the Economic Arrangements Bill, the supplementary legislation that accompanies the annual state budget. "The Knesset will fix this," Yishai said.