Haredi students - Eyal Warshavsky
Haredi students receiving a lesson on marriage and family Photo by Eyal Warshavsky
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A prime ministerial committee examining a controversial bill calling for a resumption in allowances to yeshiva students is expected to recommend that students who want to join the workforce be allowed stipends during a transition period in which they study Torah and work.

The committee, which was appointed by Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu yesterday, is also expected to recommend that the NIS 1,100 monthly allotments be gradually reduced as the yeshiva students join the workforce and stop altogether if they work full-time.

Headed by Prime Minister's Office director general Eyal Gabai, the committee was tasked with coming up with incentives for ultra-Orthodox yeshiva students to go to work.

Netanyahu also asked the panel to expand a controversial bill that would require the state to pay married yeshiva students a monthly allowance totaling at least NIS 150 million a year, despite a recent High Court of Justice ruling banning allocations that discriminate between yeshiva students and college students.

An expansion of the bill, sponsored by ultra-Orthodox MK Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism ), would also grant the allowances to college students who meet the same criteria the yeshiva students need to meet.

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation was scheduled to discuss the bill yesterday, but Netanyahu has deferred that by two weeks after the bill caused an uproar by opponents within the cabinet. Tensions among the parties in the coalition are expected to rear again when the bill next comes up for discussion.

The decision to set up the committee gives Netanyahu a chance to win over Shas and UTJ in the first reading of the state budget and the accompanying Economic Arrangements Bill, with a government-sponsored rider on the allotments for yeshiva students expected by the next two readings.

The two ultra-Orthodox parties have threatened to vote against the budget if Haredim don't get the allotments at least through December 31, the date by which the High Court of Justice has said the payments must stop.

Shas and UTJ are also demanding that the committee recommend that Haredim continue to get the allotments even if they have no plans of getting a job, despite the High Court ruling.

"I will not lend my hand to a shady scheme to get around the High Court," said Labor Party Minister Avishay Braverman. "Going out to work is what will save Haredi Judaism, with the exception of a small number of outstanding students."

Since the government began distributing allowances to married yeshiva students, their proportion in the workforce dropped from 75 percent to 40 percent, Braverman said.

Kadima members held a protest outside the Prime Minister's Office while the Ministerial Committee for Legislation met yesterday.

"We have gathered here and have clarified to Netanyahu that wherever he tries to assure his survival in contravention of High Court rulings and at the expense of students and former soldiers, he will find a large and broad group fighting him," said MK Yohanan Plesner (Kadima ).

But Netanyahu dismissed such criticism, saying the ultra-Orthodox have been receiving funds from the state for 30 years and "we are not planning any changes to this long-term status quo."

"The only difference is that the the High Court ruled that right now the arrangement won't be able to continue without primary legislation in the Knesset," he said.

Interior Minister Eli Yishai, who heads the Sephardi ultra-Orthodox Shas party, said opposition to the allowances stems from "hatred of Haredim."

"The goal of this law is to help the children of married yeshiva students who are under the poverty line cross over the poverty line, so the argument that there are no college students who meet the criteria is based on a hatred of Haredim," he said.

Yishai said Shas would not oppose efforts to broaden the criteria so that they include college students as well.

Just 200 college students

The government is considering applying to college students the same criteria the yeshiva students must meet - they must be married with at least three children, must not own a home or car, and must not have any other source of income - in order to receive the allotments, coalition sources said yesterday.

They said that in that case, only around 200 college students would be eligible.

Gafni said getting a job should not be linked to getting paid for studying Torah.

"Even in scholarships for college students, they don't condition the assistance on military service or on geting a job, but accept it because of the fact that they're studying in a university or college," Gafni said. "Even if it's clear that the student won't find a job, he gets the scholarship for his studies."

Yeshiva students who get the allowances are expected to be offered professional training if they want to enter the workforce, and continue getting stipends while in training.