Finance Ministry and Habayit Hayehudi Both Claim Victory in Yeshiva Funding Cuts Battle

Ministry officials say ultra-Orthodox students are now receiving half their 2012 support, but MK Nissan Slomiansky says ultra-Orthodox yeshivas have been spared from planned cuts.

The Finance Ministry and Habayit Hayehudi have different takes on what the ministry says are major funding cuts for yeshivas. The chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee, MK Nissan Slomiansky (Habayit Hayehudi), doesn’t take exception to the Finance Ministry figures, but is highlighting an agreement reached Thursday to scrap planned funding cuts. For its part, the Finance Ministry says state funding of ultra-Orthodox yeshivas has been slashed, while that of religious-Zionist yeshivas has not. The ministry claims the Knesset committee is misleading the public.

The decision to which Slomiansky refers relates to earlier plans to cut 230 million shekels ($66 million) in state funding of yeshivas this year, which will not be carried out now. The decision to restore the funding was finalized Thursday in a meeting between representatives of Habayit Hayehudi and the Finance Ministry.

Although Haaretz reported a month ago about the decision to reinstate the yeshiva funds, the ministry and Habayit Hayehudi refused to confirm the move at the time. Among those representing the religious-oriented party at Thursday’s meeting were the party’s head, Economy Minister Naftali Bennett, MK Ayelet Shaked and Slomiansky.

The state budget approved by the Knesset would have seen funding cut by about 30%. The cabinet gave its approval last May to a 260 million shekel cut in yeshiva funding for 2013, in addition to a 230 million shekel cut for this year. Habayit Hayehudi launched marathon talks on the matter over a period of weeks, however, resulting in a smaller cut for 2013 – 130 million shekels – and the cancellation of the cut for this year.

The yeshiva budgets include institutions of various kinds, including both Orthodox and ultra-Orthodox yeshivas, and hesder yeshivas (where students combine religious studies and military service). The new agreement restores 360 million shekels to the yeshivas for the years 2013 and 2014.

“It turns out that Naftali Bennett is not only the economy minister but also in practice the finance minister,” MK Michal Rosin (Meretz) said in response to the restoration of the yeshiva funding. Finance Minister Yair Lapid, she added, was violating his promise to sever the connection between religion and state. “This government has to wake up and realize that secular citizens also live here,” she said.

Slomiansky praised the Finance Ministry for what he called “its understanding and attentiveness.” He stated his continued commitment to safeguarding the needs of “the Torah world in its entirety,” to preserve “the Jewish character of the State of Israel and to uphold the values of Habayit Hayehudi.”

With successful lobbying on Slomiansky’s part late last year, another cut of some 48 million shekels in funding for yeshiva study – for students coming from abroad – was scrapped. In that case, the reduced funding was spared in exchange for a commitment to have the Diaspora students participate in a range of activities, including touring Israeli army bases and visits to the Yad Vashem Holocaust memorial museum in Jerusalem. There had been particular concern that students from abroad who were attending non-Zionist, ultra-Orthodox yeshivas were not being exposed to basic Zionist values.

Finance Minister Lapid’s office countered that the Knesset Finance Committee is attempting to mislead the public. The overall yeshiva budget, it said, was cut by hundreds of millions of shekels compared to 2012, when in practice it was more than a billion shekels. In 2014, the office claimed, it was expected to be about half that in relation to ultra-Orthodox yeshivas.

“In practice, the value of the point [system] that serves as a basis for calculating support has been reduced,” Lapid’s office said. “As a result, a regular yeshiva student is getting about 240 shekels per month, compared to 477 shekels [before], and a married student is getting about 432 shekels per month, compared to 858 shekels in 2012. These figures are monthly averages over the course of the year, although there may be minor variations based on the actual number of students.”

The minister’s office said an exception has been made for yeshivas whose students serve in the army, for which funding will remain at its 2012 level in an effort to encourage army service.

Historically, students at ultra-Orthodox yeshivas have been given draft deferments. That arrangement was struck down in court and the Knesset is currently deliberating legislation that is expected to provide more limited draft exemptions.

Yaron Kaminsky
Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee chairman MK Nissan Slomiansky.
Emil Salman