A seven-member panel of the High Court of Justice unanimously ruled on Sunday that the government decision to ensure payments to yeshiva students will be annulled as of January 2015 because it violates the principle of equality.
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Four years ago, the High Court ruled that it was discriminatory for yeshiva students, who are mostly ultra-Orthodox Jews, to receive such income allowances when students in other educational frameworks were denied them. That ruling was handed down by a 7-6 majority under High Court President Justice Dorit Beinisch, a decade after the original petition was filed by Jerusalem City Councilman Arnon Yekutieli, who died in the interim.
In wake of the ruling, the Gabai Committee made recommendations, and a government decision passed in December 2010 said that yeshiva students could continue receiving the payments. The decision stipulated that in the fifth year, the payments would be reduced by 75 percent — with the idea that students should at that point start working in tandem with part-time studies, and at the end of the year, the allowances would cease. The restrictions do not apply to yeshiva students over age 29, who comprise about 80 percent of allowance recipients. The government allotted 110 million shekels ($316,000) for the payments in 2011, and a similar sum in 2012.
The government said in its decision that it views "the integration of the Haredi sector into employment as an key objective and a means for breaking the cycle of poverty and dependence on allowances, which are at very high rates in this population; as a way to promote equality in the distribution of the economic burden and to help integrate the Haredi sector into the Israeli social fabric the unique characteristics of this population are recognized and support for the world of Torah learning shall continue, alongside support for other groups studying in institutions of higher education."
The High Court petition against the government decision was submitted by the National Union of Israeli Students, Hiddush for Religious Freedom and Equality, the Center for Jewish Pluralism, Ometz — The Movement for Quality Government in Israel and Be Free Israel. The petitioners argued that the government decision violates the High Court ruling and preserves discrimination between yeshiva students and other students.
Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, who authored the ruling handed down today, expressed doubt about the government decision's ability to achieve its avowed purpose. "There is a serious problem with the argument that the funding of yeshiva students for such a long period of time — four years — without them being obligated to obtain any education or skills for employment promotes their integration into the labor market at the conclusion of that period. In terms of the aim at the basis of the government's decision — a yeshiva student who tries to integrate into the labor market from the start of receiving the stipend, while gradually acquiring suitable professional training part-time in conjunction with his studies is not in the same situation as a yeshiva student who tries to do so four years later, having been supported by the state throughout those four years and received a stipend without any attempt at such integration. Paying the stipend for the four years will not aid in furthering this aspect, and what it means is that the four-year period does not contribute a thing to the desired integration into the work force," he said.
Rubinstein rejected the state's argument that since the university student aid budget was significantly increased (by 50 million skekels), the principle of equality was upheld. He also rejected the state's argument that it was a proportionate violation of equality, again citing the view that the arrangement does not serve its stated purpose.
Rubinstein also criticized the logic behind the government decision that said the process of integrating the Haredi public must take so much time, drawing a comparison to Haredi communities elsewhere. "Take the United States, for instance. In New York, there are hundreds of thousands of Haredim. The vast majority work for a living, so it appears, at least at a much higher rate than is the case in Israel," he wrote.
Court Vice President Justice Miriam Naor noted that the ruling from four years ago stipulated an ideological purpose for funding the yeshiva students — promoting Torah study, but in fact the real purpose was financial assistance. Justice Salim Joubran added, "To a certain degree, the government decision perpetuates the yeshiva students' reliance on sources of funding from the public coffers rather than from personal toil. The integration of the Haredi sector into the labor force is a crucial interest for the state. In the present situation, there is no rational connection between the purpose of the decision and the means the government has taken to accomplish it. In the words of Rabbi Gamliel, 'Torah without work results in idleness and invites sin.'"
Shas leader MK Aryeh Deri said in response to the court's ruling,"I regret to see that the court has joined the chorus of hate against a public whose pocket has taken a relentless beating in the past year. We won't let Torah learners be turned into the national punching bag." MK Meir Porush (United Torah Judiasm) decried the ruling as well, saying, "Those fighting against the Haredim in Israel received encouragement from the High Court justices. It's a terrible disgrace."