haredim ultra-Orthodox - Micha Odenheimer  - October 28 2010
Ultra-Orthodox men studying in yeshiva. Photo by Micha Odenheimer
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The High Court of Justice yesterday issued a show-cause order requiring the government to explain why it shouldn't overturn the income support payments for married yeshiva students that went into effect last year.

The order means that unless the government provides a convincing argument, the court will rule the payments illegal.

The new arrangement, which allows some 8,800 yeshiva students to receive income support payments on top of the stipends they get for studying in yeshiva, was meant to replace an earlier, similar arrangement that had been declared illegal by the court.

But several petitions to the court argued that the new arrangement continues to favor yeshiva students at the expense of other groups, chief among them university students, who are not entitled to income support payments while they are studying. One of the conditions for getting income support is that the applicant "has fully exploited his earning capability."

Yesterday's hearing was the first on the petitions submitted 11 months ago by the National Student Union, the Reform Movement, the Hiddush organization for religious equality, the religious Zionist organization Ne'emanei Torah Va'Avodah, and other groups.

During the hearing, Justice Miriam Naor made disparaging remarks about the arrangement. When the state's representative argued that the arrangement creates "near equality" between yeshiva and university students, Naor remarked that she must have "a reading comprehension problem. I don't understand what 'near equality' means."

She added: "We have no problem with a specific population getting something, but there are all kinds of ways to resolve inequality, and one of them is to take budget X and just divided it equally."

In June 2010, the court ruled on a petition that had been filed 10 years earlier by a single mother whose income support payments were stopped when she began university studies. The arrangement challenged by that petition had been in place since 1982.

After giving the government a decade to come up with a solution that would make a legal ruling unnecessary, the court ruled that the arrangement giving yeshiva students income support was illegal as it stood, and could continue only if the government set substantive criteria that justified the preference given to yeshiva students.

To placate Shas, the government set up a committee to study the issue, and in December 2010, the cabinet adopted its recommendations. Under the new program, yeshiva students under the age of 29 can receive a stipend of NIS 1,040 a month for four years if they have three children, a family income of not more than NIS 1,200 a month, and no car. In the fifth year, the student will receive 75 percent of that amount and be allowed to study half-time and work half-time. After that, that income support will stop.

But the five-year limit did not apply to yeshiva students over age 29, who constitute 80 percent of those getting income support.

The petitioners argued that the new arrangement, which spurred student demonstrations all over the country when it was announced, is almost completely identical to the earlier arrangement disqualified by the court. Deputy student union chairman Ofri Raviv said he was convinced the court would not allow "this outrageous inequality" to continue. The student union also issued a statement saying the battle against payments to yeshiva students reflects the decision by student leaders to "fight for all of Israeli society."

Attorney Orly Erez-Likhovski of the Israel Religious Action Center, who represented the petitioners, welcomed the show-cause order. "The court understood that the new arrangement discriminates against women, members of other religions, other Jewish movements, and students, who lose income support while they are studying, while avreichim [married yeshiva students] are not required to prove they have exploited their earning potential to get the payments," she said.

Shahar Ilan, vice president of Hiddush, said, "The income support payments for avreichim circumvent [the rules of] income support, and their sole purpose is to create another kitty for the yeshivas.

"A series of government reports has determined that this payment directly scuttles the national effort to get avreichim into the work force," he continued. "This payment should be limited to top scholars. The Netanyahu government, which is not doing this, is selling out Israel's economic future to remain in power."