Israel Cuts Funding for Jewish Pluralism NGOs, May Give Funds to Orthodox Groups Instead

Groups curtail activities as Education Ministry funding earmarked for 'Jewish Renewal' fails to arrive and projects are in danger of stopping altogether.

Emil Salman

The Education Ministry has suspended financial support for organizations promoting Jewish pluralism, despite the funding having been allocated in the state budget.

Some 16 million shekels (a little more than $4 million) earmarked for dozens of non-governmental organizations that promote religious pluralism may have been given instead to Orthodox organizations, Michal Berman, executive director of the Panim NGO, told Haaretz.

Panim represents dozens of pluralistic organizations in Israel, including including the BINA Center for Jewish Identity & Hebrew Culture, Beit Midrash Elul, HaMidrasha at Oranim and the Reform Movement.

The NGOs were granted financial support under a regulation pertaining to “Jewish renewal.” The 2015-2016 state budget earmarked some 16.5 million shekels for “Jewish Renewal,” out of 290 million shekels allocated for “Jewish culture,” most of which goes to Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox groups.

Several organizations promoting pluralism have curtailed activities following the suspension of financing and their programs and projects are in danger of stopping altogether.

“We’re concerned that the education minister, who emphasizes his commitment to all Israelis, is acting in a narrow, sectorial way,” Berman said. Education Minister Naftali Bennett and his aides declined to comment.

In 2013, the government decided to allocate some 10 million shekels from the Education Ministry’s budget to Jewish Renewal organizations. The following year, the funding was transferred via the Jewish Agency, pending completion of the regulation providing for the support. The regulation was released for public comments in December 2014, after about 18 months of discussion.

An official familiar with the details said that then-Deputy Education Minister Avi Wartzman (Habayit Hayehudi) refused to approve the regulation, despite minor amendments to it.

Pluralistic organizations that queried what had become of the regulation since Bennett became education minister some eight months ago did not get a clear answer. Last week, after several partial replies, the Education Ministry said that “the regulation called ‘Jewish Renewal’ is suspended at this stage.”

Panim represents dozens of pluralistic, religious NGOs in Israel. In July last year, its directors asked to meet Bennett to discuss ways of advancing the funding of Jewish renewal.

“We ask you to regard this issue from a statesmanlike point of view, as befitting the education minister of all of Israel,” they wrote. At the end of December they sent another letter, telling the minister of the harm the lack of funding was causing programs and projects of pluralistic organizations nationwide and the danger to their activity in general. “A great investment that was made on the basis of expecting the state’s support has gone down the drain,” they said.

“When Bennett entered office we expected the funding of dozens of organizations that make Jewish culture accessible to Israeli society to continue and even to grow,” Berman said.

“To our surprise, not only were our requests to meet the minister denied, but we were told of the cancelation of more and more financial allocations that were intended to narrow the gaps between the Orthodox communities and the thousands of Israelis who wish to choose their Judaism but lack the resources do to so,” she said.

The Education Ministry’s budget earmarks 8.6 million shekels for Jewish Renewal in 2015 and 7.9 million shekels for 2016 (16.5 million shekels altogether). Most budgetary clauses dealing with “Jewish Culture,” apart from Jewish Renewal, allocated more money than had been approved by the Knesset, totaling some 150 million shekels in 2015 and 142 million shekels in 2016.