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A bill that would require local authorities to significantly up their funding for Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) schools passed its preliminary reading in the Knesset yesterday.

The bill, first reported in Haaretz last week, would mandate extra funding for all schools defined as "recognized but unofficial." Most such schools belong to one of the two Haredi school systems affiliated with parties that sit in the government - Hinuch Atzma'i, affiliated with United Torah Judaism, and Ma'ayan Lehinuch Torani, affiliated with Shas.

Under current law, local governments must give such schools only 75 percent of what they give state schools. But if the so-called Gafni Bill - named after its sponsor, MK Moshe Gafni (UTJ) - becomes law, such schools would be entitled to 100 percent of the funding given state schools.

The bill passed by a vote of 39-25, with one abstention. Two members of the coalition - Ophir Pines-Paz and Eitan Cabel, both of Labor - joined the opposition in voting against it.

Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar (Likud) told the plenum that the law was necessary due to court rulings forbidding municipalities to provide in-kind services, such as secretarial or janitorial services, to schools that are funded only at the 75 percent level. That has created serious problems, he said, since some municipalities would prefer to provide services rather than cash, but currently cannot.

Nevertheless, he admitted there were parts of the bill he himself disagreed with, and hinted these might be changed in committee.

Pines-Paz, in contrast, blasted the bill. "The government is destroying state education," he charged. "In another 20 years, Israel will become a state ruled by Jewish law ... This bill is a mark of Cain on the brow of Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar. The Labor Party, Likud, Yisrael Beiteinu and Habayit Hayehudi are selling out a majority of the public for the sake of an extremist minority."

The vote was preceded by a stormy argument between Gafni and a former director general of the Education Ministry, MK Ronit Tirosh (Kadima).

Gafni, who introduced the bill, opened with a tear-jerking story about a girl with no hands or feet who was denied the services of an aide by the Jerusalem municipality because she studied in a "recognized but unofficial" school.

That prompted Tirosh to yell out: "You don't have to be an amputee in order to be denied assistance. Among you, it is enough for a student to have the wrong skin color to be denied admission to a school. We want you to practice equality and accept educational missions, and not just to be a burden on our [welfare] allowances. You cut yourself off from the general public. Be part of the state."

Gafni responded with equal fury. "Who are you to educate us?" he demanded. "I pay municipal taxes in order to finance you. When you were director general of the Education Ministry, Jewish studies were at an all-time low. Who are you to educate us about a core curriculum? For shame."