Haredi Geography Lesson

When the Religious Affairs Ministry was abolished two years ago, all its budgets for assisting religious students were transferred to the Education Ministry. Cross-referencing names and ID numbers exposed an interesting picture: tens of thousands of ultra-Orthodox students were receiving stipends from the Religious Affairs Ministry, as well as from the Education Ministry.

The explanation provided, was that the money from the Religious Affairs Ministry was paying for afternoon studies. Activities, in short, of the kind that secular families have to pay for themselves, activities that the state paid for the ultra-Orthodox families, in secret.

The double allocation at the expense of the taxpayer did not end with the Religious Affairs Ministry was abolished. The ultra-Orthodox sector continues to be showered with extra budgets, including through the Education Ministry.

Take transportation. The state pays at least NIS 40 million a year to bus children to Agudat Yisrael schools, and if anything, it will be paying more under the new coalition agreements.

For the moment, the attorney general has halted the special Agudat Yisrael school busing budget. But the ultra-Orthodox (Haredi) factions are working feverishly to overcome that obstacle.

Attorney general Meni Mazuz noticed two disgraceful things. One: some of that budget never reaches its target. Instead of being used to transport eligible children, the ultra-Orthodox were transporting other children. Who? Children of families that had rediscovered religion: the ultra-Orthodox wanted to make sure the kids went to the right schools.

The second thing Mazuz noticed was discrimination in favor of the religious children. They could be bused to schools far away even if there was one right next door. Secular children have no such rights.

The transport budget of Agudat Yisrael's independent education system is just the tip of the iceberg. In practice, many of the ultra-Orthodox schools, including ones belonging to factions other than the Aguda, transport kids from one end of the city to the other, according to the religious faction running the school.

The schisms in the ultra-Orthodox community are legion. There are hundreds, thousands of factions, or simply affection for this or that rabbi. The result is that new education institutes are constantly sprouting up, and are constantly growing smaller and more marginal.

There is no economical, geographical or educational justification for the establishment of ultra-Orthodox schools all the time, yet the Education Ministry lets it go on. All it demands is that the school enlist at least 44 children and that it meet safety and security standards. No matter than there's another ultra-Orthodox school right next door and that the two institutions will cannibalize each other's community.

Since the Education Ministry lets the ultra-Orthodox set up schools whenever they want, it also approves busing across the city. Sometimes it doesn't actually approve, but it ignores the practice. To recruit kids, some of the ultra-Orthodox schools reroute budgets for teaching staff to busing and lunches for the kids.

Nobody knows how much money is actually given to the hundreds or thousands of ultra-Orthodox schools, that have no economic justification for existing at all, and that serve no educational purpose worthy of the name. There is no supervision, no questions are asked.

Secular parent associations trying to set up special regional schools, such as democratic schools, anthroposophic schools and the like, must brave seven circles of hell to get Education Ministry approval.

Most never win the battle, as the Education Ministry rules them out for geographical reasons: there's a school near by, it explains. But when it comes to the ultra-Orthodox, the geography changes and so does the money allocation.

"The Supervision Law requires any person who wants to open any educational institute to under pedagogic, safety and hygiene checks, etc. In any case, these are different populations" - by which it means the various factions in the ultra-Orthodox community - "and the parents are the ones who decide to which school to send their children."