Finance Minister Avigdor Lieberman announced new eligibility criteria for government daycare subsidies on Wednesday, effectively cutting off funds to tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox families and eliciting allegations of religious persecution from ultra-Orthodox media and lawmakers.
The new rules, which are slated to come into effect at the start of the new school year, will require both spouses to work at least 24-hours a week in order to qualify for the payments, which comes to around 1,000 shekels ($305) per child under the age of three.
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This would primarily affect ultra-Orthodox couples in which the wife works while the husband learns full-time in Kollel, a yeshiva for married men. The new rules would effectively prevent ultra-Orthodox men who want to continue receiving the stipend from continuing their studies, although those engaged in continuing education in order to acquire “skills that will allow integration into the labor market in the future” will be exempt from the new rules, the Finance Ministry stated.
In a statement, Lieberman, the vocally anti-Haredi chairman of the Yisrael Beiteinu party, said that the decision was a sign of shifting priorities in which “those who work and pay taxes” would be prioritized and promised to continue to promote policies that “eliminate negative incentives for labor market integration.”
Speaking with the financial daily Globes, a ministry source said that the state currently spends around NIS 1.2 billion in daycare subsidies, around a third of which goes to families which will no longer be eligible under the new rules.
“There are about 23,000 children who receive the subsidy where the father learns including about 21,000 in yeshiva,” the source said. “Only in about 1,500-2,000 cases are the fathers studying subjects that are not Torah-related, but aimed at finding a job. Now they will no longer be entitled to a subsidy and we hope that will lead the fathers to join the job market.”
According to the Israel Democracy Institute, only 53 percent of ultra-Orthodox males were employed in 2019, as opposed to 88 percent of the rest of the Jewish population. Female participation in the labor force in the ultra-Orthodox community stood at 84% that year, higher than the 77% among other non-Haredi Jewish women.
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United Torah Judaism party chairman Moshe Gafni slammed the new policy, declaring that Lieberman, who he described as “evil,” was preventing ultra-Orthodox women from participating in the workforce, causing “severe economic harm to these families.”
“This is a direct and deliberate attack on ultra-Orthodox families, out of disgust and hatred towards the students and families with children,” UTJ MK Yaakov Litzman declared, accusing the government of “waging a struggle against all that is sacred and dear to us.”
Speaking with state broadcaster Kan, Shas party chairman Arye Dery said that while efforts to encourage the ultra-Orthodox to enter the workforce are legitimate, the new policy showed that the government was waging “war” against working mothers.
The state of Israel, he said, existed by the merit of those who learn Torah.
In a separate interview with ultra-Orthodox station Radio Kol Hai, the former interior minister stated that his party was “examining all possibilities to fight Lieberman's decree,” including turning to the High Court of Justice.
Health Minister and Meretz chairman Nitzan Horowitz also came out against the rules, with Kan reporting that he said that he was “in favor of giving children what they need - detached from what their parents do.”
“A child is an entity in of itself, and if it is in his best interest to be in a daycare center - I am not in favor of depriving him of it,” he declared.
Opposition leader Benjamin Netanyahu was quick to criticize the decision, tweeting that “while Lieberman is distributing tens of billions of shekels to the Islamic movement, he is harassing ultra-Orthodox families,” a reference to the government’s decision to double funding for the development of the Arab sector, a key demand of coalition partner Abbas Mansour.
Responding to his critics, Liberman tweeted a passage from the 12th century Rabbi Maimonides' law code, the Mishneh Torah, which stated that someone who decides to "involve himself in Torah study without doing work and derive his livelihood from charity, desecrates [God's] name, dishonors the Torah, extinguishes the light of faith, brings evil upon himself, and forfeits the life of the world to come."
“And to my friends from the ultra-Orthodox sector, I call on you to return to the sources and the words of Maimonides (who worked full time),” he tweeted.
Over the past decade, ultra-Orthodox parties became staunch allies of the former prime minister. In return, they enjoyed a continuing monopoly over several issues of domestic policy related to religion and state, as well as an exemption for Haredi men from Israel’s mandatory military draft.
Past governments that have attempted to abolish Haredi privileges have seen those reforms erased after only a few years. In the 2013 election, the secular Yesh Atid party had the second-most votes and formed a coalition with Netanyahu. Yesh Atid managed to push through significant cuts to Haredi entitlements and pass a law requiring Haredi men to participate in the military draft. But those changes were reversed after the subsequent election, which saw Haredi parties rejoin the governing coalition.
According to Dr. Gilad Malach, who studies the Haredi community at the Israel Democracy Institute, Wednesday’s policy change was “much more moderate” than the wide-ranging budget cuts the ultra-Orthodox suffered in 2003 and 2013, when yeshivas and child allowances were reduced significantly.
Calling ultra-Orthodox statements that the new policy would drive down female workplace participation a “reckless claim,” Malach said that the last round of cuts saw male ultra-Orthodox workplace participation rise by ten percent between 2013-2015.
If reduced access to childcare subsidies is coupled with lowering the age that ultra-Orthodox not serving in the army can legally work, it will spark another such increase, Malach told Haaretz. However, he cautioned, it may be hard to make such changes stick because the ultra-Orthodox parties are bound to be included in future coalitions.
Both Shas and UTJ have accused the new government of seeking to eradicate the Jewish nature of the state of Israel, calling Bennett “wicked” and claiming that under his rule “the people of Israel will be forced to return to living as if in exile.”
JTA contributed to this report.