Jerusalem Approves, Then Revokes, Grant to Combat Secularization of Orthodox Girls

The funding - which was requested by the city’s ultra-Orthodox education division - first passed the city council finance committee and was then approved in a majority vote by the full council on February 28.

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The Jerusalem municipality approved and then apparently revoked half a million shekels in funding for a program designed to head off the secularization of religious high school girls.

The funding − which was requested by the city’s ultra-Orthodox education division − first passed the city council finance committee and was then approved in a majority vote by the full council on February 28.

On Wednesday, Meir Turgeman, the only member of the opposition on the Jerusalem city council, filed an administrative petition with the Jerusalem District Court seeking to rescind the allocation. He was surprised to learn that city hall officials claimed they’d already withdrawn the funding two weeks ago.

Revoking a city council resolution requires the council to be reconvened. However no such step was taken in this case. Officials at city hall refused to comment on the failure to follow procedure, or the reason for the withdrawal of the funding in the first place.

According to minutes of the finance committee meeting at which the municipal budget was approved, the program is geared toward girls studying at the city’s religious high schools and ulpanot, religious high schools for girls. Budget documents state that the city’s ultra-Orthodox education division was seeking to purchase services for a program for junior high and high school girls at a community center in the Romema neighborhood who have abandoned religion or whose religious identity had lost its “meaning and vitality.”

In his administrative petition to the district court, council member Turgeman challenged the notion that a local authority may provide public funds for a program designed to prevent religious citizens from becoming secular.

“It’s a matter of principle of national importance,” said his lawyer, Yosef Havilio, who previously served as the Jerusalem municipality’s legal adviser.

“The decision over whether to be religious or not, whether to join or leave a religion, is a decision given to each and every person by virtue of freedom of religion and conscience,” he said. “Preventing individuals from abandoning religion and becoming secular is not a subject in which local authorities can get involved, and they certainly may not fund activities to prevent the abandonment of religion.”

In the petition, Havilio cited a number of court decisions dealing with local authorities’ interference in matters of religion and conscience. Among them he cited a Jerusalem District Court case involving Sabbath closing laws. In the case, Judge Ayala

Procaccia, who was later appointed to the Supreme Court, ruled that the legislative branch did not authorize municipal governments, “either explicitly or implicitly, to shape the character of the lives of the city’s population on Shabbat through legislation, whether in the spirit of Jewish religious law or otherwise.”

Havilio cited another case in which the Supreme Court ruled in favor of a petition by the left-wing Peace Now organization against funding by the governments of West Bank settlements for activities opposing Israel’s 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip.

Havilio wrote to Jerusalem Mayor Nir Barkat several days after the Jerusalem city council approved the funding for the program, demanding that the funds be withdrawn. Havilio was told he would receive a response from the city’s legal adviser, but to date no such response has been given.

Should a city pay to protect religious high-school girls from secularization?Credit: Izhar Shkedy
Jerusalem Mayor Nir BarkatCredit: Daniel Bar-On

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