Backward Legislation

In practice, the bill reflects Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's urgent need for the support of the ultra-Orthodox parties to stay in power.

The proposed bill by United Torah Judaism MK Moshe Gafni, due to be debated this morning in the Ministerial Committee for Legislation, is bad news for anyone who values equality and the rule of law. The bill, which consciously bypasses a ruling by the High Court of Justice on subsistence grants to yeshiva students, is explained by the need "to encourage Torah studies as a central value in the life of the Jewish people." In practice, it reflects Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's urgent need for the support of the ultra-Orthodox parties to stay in power.

In June, the High Court invalidated the provision in the Economic Arrangements Bill authorizing stipends to yeshiva students; it ruled that the provision discriminated against university students. Such discrimination has much more impact than the cost of the benefits themselves - about NIS 150 million a year. It flagrantly violates the principle of equality and stands on its head Israel's system of values.

Over too many years, every government has given in to the ultra-Orthodox rabbis and their Knesset proxies, allowing them to create a bloated community of students that has made poverty a source of pride. It's hard to exaggerate the damage they inflict on members of their own public, who have recently shown the desire to correct the distortion and let young people change their situation, acquire a profession and join the workforce.

Ultra-Orthodox functionaries, however, are having a hard time giving up their control of state budgets. They are also having a hard time relinquishing their control of their poor, weak constituents, and they are competing among themselves over who will twist the government's arm best. Netanyahu, who as finance minister managed to undermine this dubious power base somewhat by cutting child allowances, is now showing weakness.

This weakness is outrageous and dangerous, and is liable to relegate the next ultra-Orthodox generation to abject poverty. Of even greater concern, it sends the message to university and college students, who do not receive benefits of which the income allowances are only a part, that Israel prefers poverty and backwardness to enlightenment and contributing to society. Most of the people on the ministerial committee understand this. They can remind Netanyahu that he can choose not to surrender and prove that one's position is not the only thing that's important. So is the country.