As Funding for Jewish Pluralism Is Cut, Orthodox Groups Reap Benefits

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Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, December 2015.
Israeli Education Minister Naftali Bennett, December 2015. Credit: Ofer Vaknin

While the Education Ministry suspended government funding for organizations promoting Jewish pluralism in Israel, financing for other Jewish causes, mostly Orthodox institutions, was increased by millions of shekels in recent weeks.

The state had earmarked funds for promoting pluralist programs via the Education Ministry as per regulations pertaining to “Jewish renewal.” For 2015 the allocation totaled 8.6 million shekels (around $2.2 million), but that sum dropped to 7.9 million for this year. Last week, after offering confusing explanations, the Education Ministry stated that "the regulations for ‘Jewish renewal' have been frozen at this stage.”

However, the Finance Ministry points out that since last November, when the state budget for 2016 was approved, one area of ministerial activity, called "Jewish culture,” has been beefed up by 17 million shekels, to 150 million shekels.

The main beneficiaries of this windfall are Orthodox organizations identified with religious Zionism. For instance, the funding for the Zehut Centers for Deepening the Jewish Identity [sic], which provide lessons on Judaism and religious traditions at state schools, received 4 million shekels on top of its original budget of 15.3 million shekels. Institutes that focus on religious and Eretz Israel studies got 7.6 million in addition to the original 13.9 million shekels allocated to them.

It is reasonable to assume that the funding for so-called Jewish culture will continue to increase, in time.

The Zehut Centers (formerly known as Igud Hamercazim) is headed by Ittai Grank, an activist in Education Minister Naftali Bennett’s party, Habayit Hayehudi. Some months ago, Haaretz came across an email from Grank, citing the people responsible for the additional funding the organization received: Bennett, Minister Ayelet Shaked, MK Nisan Slomiansky and the director-general of Habayit Hayehudi, Nir Orbach.

“We want each and every one of you to call or send a message thanking them,” Grank wrote to staff at his organization.

In light of these new developments, “We are worried that the education minister, while emphasizing commitment to all of Israel, is acting based on a narrow sectoral view,” said Michal Berman, director of Panim – The Association of Jewish Renewal Organizations in Israel. She suggested that it is possible that the 16 million shekels originally intended for Israeli Judaism organizations had been given instead to Orthodox groups.

After initially refusing to comment on the subject, Bennett published figures on his Twitter account relating to ministry funding for pluralism-oriented organizations. The figures relate to allocations given within the framework of “Jewish culture" – not that of “Jewish renewal,” where support has apparently been suspended. Even so these funds amount to just 2.5 million shekels, out of a total of at least 100 million shekels.

Later the Education Ministry published an announcement that since Bennett assumed his post at the ministry, the budget for projects in these areas has been increased by more than a million shekels, and that the regulations relating to Jewish renewal programs could not have been suspended since they had never actually been implemented.

It bears mention that in 2014, the activities of pluralistic groups were supported through the Jewish Agency, until the new rules were drawn up at the ministry – but in effect, their publication and implementation have been held up since December 2014.

On Sunday, Rachel Azaria of the Kulanu party, who is head of the Jewish renewal caucus in the Knesset, sought to add an urgent addition to the Education Committee agenda, in order to find out why the Education Ministry's funding for pluralism organizations has been frozen. She said she had talked with Bennett several times in recent months about the suspension of funding, but could not get him to revoke the decision.

“The Education Ministry should provide that money,” Azaria said. “It is the right move from the perspective of Israeli society. Everybody has to create his own Jewish identity and it’s important that it not be dictated by one single group.”

Other Knesset members have also voiced criticism of the Education Ministry’s decision.