Head to Head / Gideon Sa'ar, Are Yeshiva Students Not Entitled to an Income Allowance?

Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar is the only Likud minister who took a clear public stance against the so-called yeshiva bill, which is designed to circumvent the High Court of Justice ruling that stipends for yeshiva students are illegal.

Gideon Sa'ar, Alon Ron.
Alon Ron

This bill, initiated by MK Moshe Gafni of United Torah Judaism, proposes legislating income allowances for yeshiva students with three or more children and no other source of regular income. Also opposing the bill are ministers from Labor and Yisrael Beiteinu.

The Ministerial Committee for Legislation had been scheduled to vote on the bill yesterday, but that was delayed so that a professional committee could review it.

Education Minister Gideon Sa'ar, are yeshiva students, whose profession is studying Torah and who live in appalling poverty, not entitled to an income allowance from the state?

"There's no doubt that this arrangement, as proposed by the bill, is anomalous when compared with the general intent of income allowances. An income allowance is supposed to be a temporary safety net for people who cannot work. In that sense, MK Gafni's draft bill is a blow not only to equality, as the High Court of Justice ruled, but also to Israel's economy and the integration of the ultra-Orthodox into the work force. That today is one of the most important things for ensuring the future of Israel's society and economy.

"At the same time, this is not an isolated issue. I see it in a broader context - the integration of the ultra-Orthodox into the labor force, the education system, etc. It's not right always to discuss an isolated subject because that is what the Haredim are demanding. It is not right to continue with the salami tactics every time we encounter a Haredi demand and a threat, and overlook the interests of the State of Israel."

Where can this lead to? What is the next issue the Haredi parties could raise?

"I believe the next issue will be the Haredi parties demanding a law to grant status to the unofficial Haredi school system, in the wake of a High Court of Justice discussion on the matter. But there are additional issues that will be put on the agenda, such as conversion and housing.

"The time has come for us to take a broader look at the interests of the State of Israel. As a politician, I understand there have to be compromises and mutual concessions. We don't need to continue to be unilateral."

You say this is not the Haredi parties' first attempt to unilaterally promote issues at the expense of the general public. Do you have additional examples of this?

"Three months ago, I brought a draft bill to the government - about a national authority for measuring [schoolchildren's achievements] - after three years of work. The bill was supposed to enable the education system to work based on data and research, and has gone through a lot of problems. In the end, we reached a compromise and we wanted to take it to the Knesset for its first reading at the end of the summer session.

"But then I came up against unjustified and irrelevant opposition from the Haredi factions. It blocked this important bill, and that is extremely grave. Until then, the subject has not been discussed by the government or the Knesset. The Haredim thought - incorrectly - that the bill's intent was to force them to hold standardized tests, even though they are already obligated by law to do so.

"There was also opposition from the Haredim about another bill intended to correct loopholes that let secular girls falsely present themselves as religious in order to avoid military service. We are not talking about religious girls but secular girls, but nevertheless this bill was delayed after it was altered under pressure from the Haredi factions."

What will the happen to the "yeshiva bill"? Will it be approved despite the criticism?

"I believe we are now in a much better situation than we were four days ago. Today we were supposed to approve a proposal that was suddenly put in front of us, while now everyone says the bill must also encourage the Haredim to enter the workforce. That is why things already have improved."

Gafni said today that you are being duplicitous: You struck coalition agreements with Haredi factions and you know they have a commitment from the government to legislate every part of the status quo with regard to religion and state that the High Court of Justice has rejected. Yet you still are publicly opposing the yeshiva law.

"I reject Rabbi Gafni's interpretation of the coalition agreement. We are not referring to a matter of religion and state but rather to a budgetary issue. If this had appeared in the coalition agreement, it would have had to appear under welfare and not religion and state. But I know the agreement well and this was not included in it.

"Regardless of the claims about the coalition agreements, there are several other binding laws, such as the obligation to hold standardized tests. To my regret, the people who violated the status quo were the Haredi factions. I won't listen to one-sided claims. That is not what I consider partnership."

As a senior Likud minister, you expressed vehement opposition to the current yeshiva bill, but the prime minister said it must be passed. Do you not worry about expressing opinions contrary to the official government stance?

"Obviously I am speaking for myself. My stance is supported by the vast majority of Likud voters and Israeli citizens. I suggest you listen to me well - several issues can be settled through dialogue. The fact that I think that Gafni's proposal is bad does not mean it should not be discussed and an agreement reached. But it is not right to continue to let the Haredi factions divide and conquer without looking at where it is leading the country in the long run."