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Twice in 2003 the government made decisions aimed at spurring yeshiva students aged 23 and older toward the job market. Back then, Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's reform ship was steaming along at full throttle, its wake buffeting weak sector citizens from all over the country: single mothers from Dimona, unemployed Arabs from Shfaram, and poor married yeshiva students from Bnei Brak. All of them suffered equally, with their sources of income being sharply cut on the grounds that this was the only way to force them to go to work.

Those not from ultra-Orthodox circles had their guaranteed income supplements trimmed, along with all their fringe benefits. The ultra-Orthodox, on the other hand, were affected by a decision titled "Integrating married yeshiva students in the job market," which reduced by 40 percent the support granted to yeshivas whose students are 23 or older. This support was used mainly to provide the students with subsistence stipends.

All these citizens, ultra-Orthodox and secular, had their child allowances downsized in a gradual process that will end in 2009, when the stipend for every child will be the same - NIS 144. Although these cuts were intended to save the government money, they were backed by a clearly declared ideology.

This past Sunday it turned out that ideology is one thing and realpolitik another. Despite the objections of Labor Party ministers, the government accepted a decision proposed by Prime Minister Ariel Sharon to cancel the cuts instituted 18 months ago in the funding of adult yeshivas. There is no reason given in the government's explanatory literature. Its first three paragraphs note that in 2003, the government decided to reduce support to the yeshivas in order to integrate their students into the job market. The explanation then states, "Most married students who have reached their 23rd birthday are the heads of families with many children. The said government decision reduced the financial resources of these families, resources that were in any case reduced by the cuts decided by the government concerning the child allowances. At this time it is proposed that that reduction [in support to yeshivas] be canceled."

This means that the government is essentially admitting that its current decision is aimed at transferring money to the ultra-Orthodox as an alternative to the child allowances that were trimmed. Shas also demanded the return of the money that was cut from the child allowances as a condition for its support of the government - but what the government was not willing to do for Shas, a predominantly Sephardi party, it is willing to do for the ultra-Orthodox Ashkenazim in order to ensure their support for the budget.

Even though most of the electorate is not composed of married yeshiva students and will not benefit from the additional support, and even though Shas' demand would have benefited all children in Israel, and not only its own constituents, Shas held its tongue after this week's government decision. Like everyone else, Shas knows what hangs in the balance. If the Knesset does not approve the state budget for 2005 by the end of this month, snap elections will be held.

This is not the first time, and probably not the last, that child allowances are used as a bargaining chip by the ultra-Orthodox. This is also not the first time the allowances are being used to discriminate against the Arabs. Starting in 1970, anyone who did not serve in the Israel Defense Forces was not eligible for child allowances. That arrangement ended only 25 years later, when it was canceled by prime minister Yitzhak Rabin. During that period, the Religious Affairs Ministry compensated the ultra-Orthodox via enlarged stipends, so that only the Arabs were hurt.

Starting in 1997 every family in Israel has been equally eligible for child allowances. In 2002 an attempt was made to reinstate discrimination when the government decided on a 20 percent cut in the child allowances of parents who had not served in the army or national service. When it turned out that close to 400,000 families, most of them Jewish, would be affected, there was a public outcry, including from Shas. Seven petitions were filed with the High Court of Justice, and the idea was shelved. In its stead, the coalition agreement with Shinui included an equal reduction in child allowances to all families.

The government's current move is cynical, unethical and racist. In January, senior officials at the Finance Ministry told Shas leader Eli Yishai that the real reason for the reluctance to return the monies trimmed from the child allowances was the desire to reduce the Arab birthrate. It was even intimated to Yishai that this was a good reason for him to back down from his demand.

In the meantime, treasury officials are no longer concealing their ambitions, even claiming that birthrate figures for 2004 prove that their tactic worked.