Revealed: The Hidden Cost of Israel's Public Spending on Religious Services

First-of-its-kind study shows religious allocations in 2016 amount to $2.3 billion — or 2.3% of total state budget — spread across several ministries.

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Students praying at the Shavei Hevron yeshiva in Kiryat Arba in 2011.
Students praying at the Shavei Hevron yeshiva in Kiryat Arba in 2011.Credit: Michal Fattal
Tomer Avital
Tomer Avital
Tomer Avital
Tomer Avital

The total amount of money allocated to religious purposes in the 2016 budget amounts to some 8.7 billion shekels ($2.3 billion), a joint study by Haaretz and the Israel Hofsheet - Be Free Israel organization has revealed.

That sum is 2.3 percent of the total state budget of 424.8 billion shekels and 13 times higher than the budget allocated to the Religious Services Ministry. The official budget for religious services — including the ministry, the Chief Rabbinate and the rabbinical courts — comes to about 640 million shekels.

Religious budgetary allocations are spread over several ministries, including the Education Ministry, the Culture and Sports Ministry, the Justice Ministry and, suprisingly, the Agriculture Ministry

An infographic breaking down the Ministry of Agriculture 2016 budget.
Credit: Haaretz

Fully 36 percent of this year’s Agriculture Ministry budget — 1.6 billion shekels out of a total 4.46 billion shekel budget — goes in compensation to former Gaza settlers for the loss of synagogue equipment during the 2005 disengagement from the Gaza Strip.

For decades, every state budget included special allocations determined by coalition agreements that weren’t made public. Only last November, when the 2016 budget was approved, were these budgetary agreements published in full for the first time, along with the names of the Knesset members who managed to extort millions of shekels for various purposes.

That made it possible, for the first time, to determine where exactly the money is going.

Haaretz, in cooperation with the Israel Hofsheet - Be Free Israel organization, which promotes religious pluralism and freedom from religion, has gone through the budget with a fine-toothed comb to determine the amount of money going to religious institutions and causes — ritual baths, Jewish identity, nongovernmental organizations and more.

The budget for religious services isn’t fixed; it can change overnight by hundreds of thousands of shekels if the Knesset Finance Committee approves extra funding for one organization or decides to cut another’s budget. This makes it hard to gather accurate information and means that some of the figures below may already be out of date.

Moreover, there are certain issues the government collects no data on at all — for instance, tax revenue lost due to the exemption of synagogues from paying municipal taxes.

Thus, the 8.7 billion shekel total is an estimate. Nevertheless, it’s the most accurate estimate to date of how much religious services cost the State of Israel, based on government data, questions posed to government ministries and information from sources in government.

An infographic breaking down the Ministry of Justice 2016 budget.
Credit: Haaretz

Israelis are already familiar with some of the funding that falls outside the official religious services budget, like money for yeshivas and the ultra-Orthodox school systems. But other line items proved surprising — like the one million shekels the Justice Ministry grants to researchers of Jewish religious law, or the millions of shekels given to organizations that provide housing assistance in the heart of Tel Aviv for people who have returned to religion.

“It’s astounding to see how many millions are allocated by the state to strengthen the religious foothold in secular space,” said Mickey Gitzin, executive director of Israel Hofsheet.

Gitzin said the study helps explain how the religious parties maintain their control over the definition of Judaism in Israel. “The Education Ministry has become a political mechanism for Habayit Hayehudi,” a religious Zionist party, he charged. “And everything we’ve been told about how the ultra-Orthodox just want to protect their own systems is wrong. It’s bad enough they’re taking our money, but it turns out this money is also invested in the secular [school] system in an effort to forcibly put a skullcap on it.”

“It’s particularly chilling that in economically weak locations, supplementary educational activity is financed by the state through religious organizations,” he added.

Altogether, the study found that 7.1 percent of the Education Ministry’s 50.8 billion shekel budget is devoted to religious purposes. Of this, the largest line item is one billion shekels in support of religious institutions, with the single largest grantee being the Mir Yeshiva (22 million shekels). The second biggest line item is 519 million shekels for the independent school system run by the ultra-Orthodox Shas party.

The ministry also funds religious programming in the schools (170 million shekels), Jewish culture (142 million), stipends for yeshiva students (100 million) and religious youth groups (16 million), as well as various other religious causes.

The Education Ministry responded that funding for religious purposes comprises a mere 0.3 percent of its total budget. “School enrichment activities are the full responsibility of the school principal, based on the spirit of the school and the community,” it said in a statement. “The Education Ministry trusts the principals and is certain they operate based on the needs of their schools.”

The Culture Ministry allocates 0.9 percent of its 1.33 billion shekel budget to religious services, with the biggest line item being 8.6 million shekels in funding for religious cultural institutions. And the Ministry for Negev and Galilee Development spends 2.8 percent of its budget on religious causes, in the form of a 10 million shekel allocation for developing religious tourism sites, including the graves of famous rabbis.

Finally, the study estimates the lost tax revenue from the fact that most religious services aren’t taxed at 500 million shekels.

Shahar Ilan, vice president of research and information at the Hiddush - For Religious Freedom and Equality organization, said the generous funding given to yeshiva students sabotages the state’s declared goal of getting ultra-Orthodox men into the labor force, as does the generous funding given to ultra-Orthodox school systems that don’t teach the core curriculum. When students of these schools graduate in another 10 to 15 years, he said, they will lack the basic knowledge and skills needed to get a decent job, even if they want to work.

The goal of the ultra-Orthodox parties in insisting on this funding, he added, “is to keep ultra-Orthodox voters in poverty and ensure that they’ll be obedient and dependent and continue to vote for United Torah Judaism and Shas.”

The study conducted by Haaretz and Israel Hofsheet was made possible in large part by volunteers from the Public Knowledge Workshop (Hasadna), who performed an important public service by making all the budgetary data easily accessible to the public online.

The tax authority loses 500 million shekels because taxation of income from religion barely exists.
Credit: Haaretz