High Court Abolishes State Grants for Yeshiva Students

Judges strike heavy blow at Israel's ultra-orthodox Jews, ruling that funding for seminary scholars discriminates against secular students.

The Supreme Court on Monday struck a heavy blow at Israel's ultra-orthodox Jews when it ruled to abolish benefits for older yeshiva students.

Yeshiva students, Nir Kafri
Nir Kafri

Married students at yeshivas, or Jewish seminaries, are entitled to support payments from the state to guarantee them a minimum income. But similar grants for secular higher education students were abolished in 2000.

On Monday the court upheld a petition brought in 2000 by Ornan Yekutieli, a campaigner for secular rights and a former deputy mayor of Jerusalem, accusing the government of discrimination in favor of religious students.

Yekutieli died in 2001 but his petition finally came before the court this week.

In her ruling, Supreme Court President Dorit Beinisch said: "There is no place for distinction between yeshiva students in any other institutions."

Interior MInister Eli Yishai MK, a member of the religious Shas party, condemned the ruling, vowing to use the Knesset redress any damage to religious students.

"The Knesset will fix this," Yishai said. "The High Court ruling is a hard strike against at the spiritual status quo of the nation of Israel."

Moshe Gafni MK, a lawmaker for the United Torah Judaism party and chairman of the Knesset finance committee, also decried the judgment, saying the Supreme Court had a history of favoring secular causes.

"We are talking about some of the poorest families in Israeli society," he said. "There has never been a Supreme Court ruling that benefited the orthodox community. We will have to assess the ruling and see what we can do to cope over the coming financial year."

Nitzan Horowitz MK, of the left-wing Metertz party, hailed the verdict.

"This is an important step in assuring real equality for Israel's citizens," he said. "We need to ensure the ruling is implemented quickly and to provide for those students who get no grants from the state and work to support themselves while paying tuition fees and serving in the army reserves."

Justice Ayala Procaccia, who voted for the ruling, said the ruling characterized the dilemma between the obligation of a multi-cultural society to respect minorities and the duty of all citizens to accept their responsibilities according to the law of the land.

A third judge, Justice Edmond Levy, dissented.

"Torah study is a commandment and both the Knesset and the government have asserted that it should be funded by placing on the public the burden of providing an income for Torah students," Levy wrote.