Israel's Top Court Tells Education Ministry to Explain Funding Bias Against non-Orthodox Groups

High Court instructs ministry to explain why it should not change its methods of support for so-called 'centers for the deepening of Jewish education'

Naftali Bennett and Rafi Peretz, his successor as education minister, in 2019.
Emil Salman

The High Court of Justice instructed the Education Ministry on Thursday to explain why it does not change its funding procedures to organizations that hold programs in public schools.

The instruction comes in the wake of a petition by the Israel Movement for Progressive Judaism and Panim: the Israel Judaism Network against changes made during the tenure of the previous education minister, Naftali Bennett, in the way the ministry funds the programs by these organizations.

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In 2019, funding to these organizations was approximately 24 million shekels ($6.9 million), most of which went to Orthodox groups affiliated with right-wing Orthodox parties.

The court stated in its verdict that after examining the state’s response, it decided to require the ministry to explain why it should not change its methods of support for so-called “centers for the deepening of Jewish education” so that “essential equality is created with regard to the attitude shown to pluralistic organizations, in the spirit of the Shenhar Committee.” In 1989, that committee submitted a report to the education minister outlining ways to broaden Jewish education in a pluralistic manner.

The justices also required the ministry to explain why supervision of support for its department of Jewish culture, which is identified with national religious organizations, should not be transferred to another department in the ministry, which is less committed to an Orthodox worldview.

The new funding procedures for programs beyond the regular Jewish studies curriculum were published in mid-2019. Among other changes, the extra points that pluralistic organizations operating in the spirit of the Shenhar Committee once received were abolished. This meant a difference in funding of tens of thousands of shekels, which is significant for the pluralistic groups, which, unlike their Orthodox counterparts, do not receive direct funding or indirect support from various government ministries.

As Haaretz reported, the Education Ministry, in an attempt to explain the change, explained that the programs in secular schools are run by pluralistic groups. The ministry included in these groups associations committed to an Orthodox worldview, such as Chabad. This contradicted the ministry’s declaration a few months earlier that most of the associations operating programs in the schools are not in keeping with the Shenhar Committee recommendations.

According to attorneys Meital Arbel and Orly Erez-Likhovski of the Israel Religious Action Center, the High Court of Justice “has issued a ‘red card’ to increased religiosity. We are pleased that the court accepted our position that a situation in which most of the budgets for Jewish studies in the state [secular] system are given to Orthodox groups is intolerable.” The attorneys added that the court did not accept the “strange arguments of the state – as if there is no increased religiosity” in secular public schools and that “all the content studied is pluralistic.”

Yotam Brom, head of Panim, said after the ruling that the Education Ministry should “come to its senses” and begin to act in a manner that “gives Jewish studies a place for every student.”

An investigation by Panim found that the total state support for pluralistic groups in 2018 amounted to only 14.5 million shekels in comparison with some 300 million shekels to non-pluralistic groups. Moreover, only 3.8 percent of funding goes to pluralistic organizations, as opposed to about 7 percent to Orthodox groups.

“The time has come for government funding to serve the general population and not only the narrow interests of a particular religious sector,” Brom added.