By the Disgrace of God

The troubling findings of the current State Comptroller's report already apply to the terms of Religious Affairs Minister Ohana and his director-general Shimoni. Never has the Ministry of Religious Affairs been in the hands of a religious leadership more interested in proper administrative procedure than today.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs was expecting a glowing evaluation in the State Comptroller's annual report this year. Religious Affairs Minister Asher Ohana and his director-general Moshe Shimoni apparently think the State Comptroller hands out marks for effort and good intentions, and results don't matter.

The findings of this year's report are as dismal as ever. The State Comptroller did not give the whole picture, but only examples of how the yeshivas are funded. Demanding the most outrage is the report's finding that 250 students are registered in half-day kollel programs (yeshivas for married men) in areas under the jurisdiction of the Abu Jiwad and Hamriya Bedouin tribes, and in the village of Baka al-Garbiyeh. Who says there's budget discrimination against the Bedouin community?

Even more disturbing, from the perspective of proper administrative procedure, is that the addresses of two-thirds of these institutions were never entered into the computer. The Ministry of Religious Affairs says the system has changed - an address is mandatory and reports on the number of students are not accepted without one.

The trouble is phony addresses have made their way into the computer and only with help from the State Comptroller's office has the ministry reached the conclusion that yeshivas and kollel students are not usually found in such places. It is hard to escape the feeling that no matter what measures are taken to prevent the submission of fictitious reports, nothing will help when the "guardians of the wall" (the Ministry of Religious Affairs) has no real interest in sealing every crevice.

The number of "foreign passport holders" - yeshiva students with foreign citizenship - grew from 16,000 in January 2000 to 18,500 in February 2001, an increase of 16 percent. It turns out that a quarter of all students in higher yeshivas (attended by bachelors over the age of 17) are foreign citizens. Such figures inevitably arouse grave suspicions. Indeed, an investigation by the State Comptroller in November 2001 revealed that one out of every three foreign students had left the country the year before, but officially they were still studying at a yeshiva and funding was being received in their names.

The Ministry of Religious Affairs has long been promising to close this loophole by requiring foreign students to sign in at the post office every three months. The ministry has already taken credit for this reform, but in practice, nothing has been done. A little pressure from the heads of these yeshivas apparently scares the ministry more than the State Comptroller and the secular media put together.

A master in the use of "foreign passport" system as a means of padding the budget is Neve Yerushalayim, a religious studies program for women, which was caught reporting hundreds of fictitious students. Happily, the ministry has slashed funding to this institution by 2.6 million shekels, after payments were halted for nearly a year. But because Neve Yerushalayim is an exceptional case rather than the norm, it is not a genuine deterrent.

The question is what has to happen for the ministry to stop funding an institution altogether, when the only penalty for a fictitious listing of hundreds of students is a fine. And of course, that brings us to the question of when yeshiva heads will finally face criminal prosecution for filing false reports.

Thousands of ultra-Orthodox men study in Haredi yeshivas, which are anti-Zionist and refuse to accept any money from the state. But the State Comptroller's report in 1997 already revealed that their names are being used by other yeshivas to obtain larger budgets. Four years have gone by, but nothing has changed. According to this report, nearly half of all Haredi students are fictitiously enrolled in yeshivas that receive funding in their name.

The State Comptroller employed an incredibly simple method to reach this conclusion. He tallied up figures submitted to the army for the purpose of draft exemptions. If this was four years ago, and the Ministry of Religious Affairs has yet to do any computing of its own, what else can we call it but active participation in the plunder of the state?

The troubling findings of the current State Comptroller's report already apply to the terms of Ohana and Shimoni. Never has the Ministry of Religious Affairs been in the hands of a religious leadership more interested in proper administrative procedure than today. The report of the State Comptroller seems to indicate that the corruption in the ministry runs so deep that even the minister and the director-general stand helpless before it.

Reforms will not help. The only solution is to close down this disgrace known as the Ministry of Religious Affairs and wipe it off the face of the public administration map. As long as the religious establishment insists on the continued existence of this rotten institution, its leaders should not be surprised that their public image mirrors the image of the ministry that foots their bills - conniving, fiddling, and corrupt.