Far-right Minister Holds Up Millions in Funds Earmarked to Aid Ethiopian Israeli Youth

Cabinet accedes to Bezalel Smotrich's request to remove funding from agenda, preventing transfer of funds for the renovation of youth villages and boarding schools

Bezalel Smotrich minister attends a weekly cabinet meeting in Jerusalem on June 24, 2019. (Photo
AFP

Transportation Minister Bezalel Smotrich is delaying the transfer of millions of shekels from the Education Ministry for advancing Ethiopian Israeli students, for teens at risk and for renovating youth villages and boarding schools. Instead, Smotrich wants to use the money for “conversion institutes in crisis, resilience centers in Gaza border communities and in Judea and Samaria, road safety and more.”

On Sunday, the interim government was supposed to approve the transfer of about 48 million shekels ($13.5 million) for various purposes, which were promised as coalition funding to former Education Minister Naftali Bennett. The money was supposed to be transferred to the Community Center Association, youth movements, boarding schools, and stipends for Ethiopian Israeli students already in March, but were delayed because of the election.

The subject was supposed to be brought up at the recent cabinet meeting by interim Education Minister Rabbi Rafi Peretz. Before the meeting, a letter was sent from the director general of the Education Ministry, Shmuel Abuhav, who explained that the budgets should be sent immediately to the various organizations that depend on them, otherwise their activity will suffer.

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However, before the start of the meeting the subject was removed from the agenda at Smotrich’s request, due to differences of opinion regarding the use of the money. It was decided to postpone approval of the budget transfer to the next cabinet meeting, and meanwhile there are negotiations between the representatives of Smotrich and Peretz. Smotrich wants to use the money for purposes closer to his heart, claiming that the money was promised to Bennett, who was dismissed from his job.

Smotrich’s request to delay the budget prevents the transfer of about 15 million shekels for the renovation of youth villages and boarding schools, some of which are in bad shape.

The delayed budgets also include about six million shekels for the Community Centers Association for a special enrichment program for Ethiopian Israeli first- and second-graders in about 40 communities. Abuhav wrote without the budget, the program’s continuation cannot be guaranteed.

Smotrich’s request is also preventing the transfer of 1.2 million shekels for stipends for Ethiopian Israelis who are doing a year of post-high-school community service or studying in pre-army academies. The ministry has only about half of the necessary sum for the stipends, on which 420 such teens depend.

Other programs include integration of French children into the community, a leadership program for young people and a program for at-risk and special-needs teenagers.

The 13 youth movements that operate in Israel were meant to get additional budgets of five million shekels but this, too, is being held up at Smotrich’s request, and the delay is likely to disrupt the movements’ preparations for their upcoming summer camps. According to the Education Ministry, the delay will particularly harm poorer youngsters, for whom the youth movements often subsidize activities.

Also being delayed at this point is a budget increment of a million shekels for a program for those planning to do a year of national service, who are in the midst of a training period. There are also four million shekels meant to be transferred to nonprofits who send educators to volunteer in the community in various towns and cities.

Other programs awaiting funding as part of this decision include a program to teach elementary school children how to play instruments (one million shekels); academies that teach Jewish studies and Land of Israel studies (two million shekels), and a special grant of 5 million shekels requested by the Jerusalem municipality to strengthen schools in East Jerusalem.

Smotrich’s office said in response, “The decision as it was meant to be submitted for cabinet approval is the decision of former Minister Bennett, and reflects his value priorities. We have other priorities, and we are seeking to promote them based on the mandate we received in the elections, in part through religious Zionism’s coalition budgets.

“Thus, for example, there’s no reason that 4 million shekels of our coalition budgets should go the Shelly Yacimovich’s friends in the Labor Party. I have an agenda, Rabbi Peretz has an agenda, and we have to aim these budgets at projects we’re interested in advancing, which I’m not ashamed of. There’s a lack of funds to deal with kids who drop out, for the activities of the conversion institutes that are in crisis, for the resilience centers in the Gaza border areas and in Judea and Samaria, for Jewish identity, road safety and more.”