Deal With Coalition Partners Saves Jewish Identity Agency From Axe

Reform leader says agency was 'born in sin as a pipeline to funnel money' to Orthodox groups, vows to petition High Court against it.

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Education Minister Naftali Bennett at a Knesset faction meeting, July 20, 2015.
Education Minister Naftali Bennett at a Knesset faction meeting, July 20, 2015.Credit: Michal Fattal
Or Kashti
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The Jewish Identity Administration will not be eliminated, under a deal reached last week between the treasury and coalition partners.

The Finance Ministry’s draft budget for 2015-16 abolished the agency. But in talks last week with treasury officials, cabinet members from Shas, which controls the Religious Services Ministry, proposed other cuts to the ministry’s budget in order to save the Jewish Identity Administration.

The Finance Ministry claimed that eliminating the agency would have saved the state about five million shekels ($1.3 million) a year — its official budget over the past two years. In fact, because the agency received additional allocations over the course of the year, the actual savings would probably have been much greater. The administrations actual budget in 2014 was 21 million shekels, and several sources said they expected something similar to happen this year.

The Religious Services Ministry had complained that the proposal to scrap the agency had not been coordinated with it. The treasury retorted that ministry staffers never answered its questions about where they preferred to make cuts, so treasury staffers had to make their own decision. Under a recent cabinet resolution, all ministries have to make certain cuts in order to keep the state budget from exceeding its approved ceiling.

The Jewish Identity Administration was originally established by the religious-Zionist Habayit Hayehudi party, during the last government. But the ultra-Orthodox Shas decided to keep it, one source said, because “Shas can now use the existing platform to upgrade and add religious activities, though the emphases and focus of Shas’ activities may be different than those of Habayit Hayehudi.”

In its first year of operation, the agency cooperated with various Orthodox Jewish organizations, including some affiliated with Habayit Hayehudi, to carry out a range of programming for the general public. In its second year, it also began cooperating with a few non-Orthodox groups, but not with the Reform or Conservative movements.

Rabbi Gilad Kariv, the executive director of the Movement for Progressive Judaism — the Reform movement in Israel — said the agency was “born in sin, as a pipeline to funnel money” to Orthodox groups, and should have been shut down by the attorney general. Since this didn’t happen, he added, his organization intends to petition the High Court of Justice against it.

The treasury said the Religious Services Ministry had proposed reducing the agency’s budget but not closing it entirely, and had offered compensatory cuts in other activities.

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