Litzman's Grab

Within 24 hours, criteria were approved and published that significantly increase allocations to kollel students, to the detriment of hesder yeshivas.

The speed of the move probably has no precedent in the annals of the budget system: Last Tuesday, Attorney General Menachem Mazuz approved the change in the criteria of allotments to yeshivas, resulting in an increase of dozens of percentage points for students of kollels (yeshivas for married men). The move damages all other kinds of yeshivas, including hesder yeshivas. The day after the criteria were published in the government gazette, they were official, and the money started flowing on the eve of the holiday.

On the hasty path to approval and publication, the accepted practice in the Justice Ministry that changes in criteria are published so the public can present its objections, was forgotten. The source of the pressure on Prime Minister Ariel Sharon and the attorney general is the chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee, Yaakov Litzman, who was completing a move for a dramatic increase in allocations to yeshiva students as a means of compensating them for cuts in child allowances.

Meanwhile, attorney Gilad Barmea, a veteran High Court petitioner in this matter, is arguing that this addition discriminates in favor of children in ultra-Orthodox families.

The point game

A reminder: In March 2003, the Sharon-Netanyahu-Shinui government determined that yeshiva students 23 years and over will receive only 60 percent of the allocation to younger students, in order to persuade yeshiva students to enter the labor market. One of the first steps the government took after United Torah Judaism entered the coalition was the decision, about two months ago, to repeal this difference between various kinds of yeshiva students. Ostensibly, the situation returned to the status quo. But only ostensibly.

The allocations for students of all yeshivas, kollels, great yeshivas (for students of 17 years and older) and hesder yeshivas, are linked to the cost of living and the money comes from the same coffers. The cost-of-living linkage operates on a point system, in which every point equals a few hundred shekels a month. The value of a point changes in accordance with the size of the budget and the number of students. A student in a great yeshiva gets one point; a student in a hesder yeshiva get 1.35 points.

MK Zevulun Orlev (National Religious Party) says that for years it was accepted practice to give a kollel student 25 percent more than a student in a great yeshiva. But in March 2003, to compensate for the reduction to students 23 years of age or older, the ratio was changed. It was decided that students up to age 23 would receive 1.8 points (80 percent more than yeshiva students) in order to mitigate the damage to kollels and their students. Orlev stresses that this decision in favor of ultra-Orthodox institutions, was made during the time the NRP was in the coalition and the ultra-Orthodox parties were not.

The criteria published last week state that everyone will now receive 1.8 points, thereby creating an unprecedented advantage of 80 percent for kollel students over the students of the great yeshivas. The result is detrimental to the well known Lithuanian yeshiva like Ponevezh and Hebron.

The allocation to kollel students 23 and older jumped to about NIS 600. This is close to a quarter more than at the end of last year (NIS 486), and more than half again as much as it was at the beginning of the last year (NIS 392). On the other hand, allocations to great yeshiva students went down from NIS 450 at the end of last year to NIS 340, about a 25 percent decrease. Allocations to hesder students were hit at a similar rate - falling from NIS 605 at the end of the last year to NIS 460 this year. Orlev, who heard about the criteria-grab from Haaretz, said if this were true, it was "robbery of the hesder yeshivas' money."

Making students hostages

What made Sharon and Mazuz recognize the importance of the matter and rush the changes through? Litzman, together with the adviser to the education minister, Hezi Shinelzon, had prevented the transfer of the money until the very eve of the holiday. "This is the first time that yeshiva students have gone on Passover break without their stipends," the Orthodox journalist Yossi Elituv says. It raised internal debate in United Torah Judaism; MK Moshe Gafni of Degel Hatorah does not understand why the matter had to be dealt with "on the backs of the institutions," and another ultra-Orthodox source accuses Litzman and Shinelzon of turning the yeshiva students into hostages of their struggle. Shinelzon says the fact is that he did manage to get the criteria passed as well as the money.

Litzman does not deny putting pressure on Sharon and Mazuz. On the contrary, he believes the scandalous thing is that "there was a cabinet decision two months ago and I had to bring pressure to bear." Litzman argues that all the additional money to the yeshiva students comes out of the NIS 140 million in coalition funds that UTJ obtained, and so other yeshivas can't claim they were hurt, and that last year there were also budgetary additions to the yeshivas amounting to about NIS 100 million, so in real terms, this is only an addition of only NIS 40 million. According to Litzman, "When the NRP was in the coalition, they did what they wanted and got the money. Now that we're in the coalition, we'll get it."

The Justice Ministry rejects claims that the move was not proper and says it was an "amendment of specific criteria stemming from a cabinet decision two months ago." The only thing that was done quickly was the publication of the amendment, "in order to allow payment before the holiday." And according to the ministry, the practice of publication in the gazette involves new criteria or major amendments to existing ones. The case in question refers to a specific criterion. Moreover, "the government decision received widespread publication two months ago, so the public has had the relevant information for a long time."

The next negotiation

But the significance of the change of criteria is more than budgetary. When the government decided to reduce allocations to yeshiva students 23 years old and older, it made it possible for them to work for the first time, despite the arrangement to put off their army service that states that the study of Torah is their profession. From now on, yeshiva students 23 years and over will receive a larger allocation, and will also be able to work. In this context, MK Ronnie Brizon (Shinui) believes this is a change in principle and not a specific change. "Now the only prohibition the yeshiva students actually have is that of going to the army." Brison accuses the coalition of going back on the policy of getting the yeshiva students out to work and of a "return to the policy of allocations."

And what of the future? Litzman explains that he intends to solve the problem of cutbacks to the students of the great yeshivas with another addition to the budget that will increase allocations to the yeshiva students to NIS 400 and to the kollel students to NIS 700. The intended date is the next negotiation over the budget.

A revolution in the Haredi press

One of the holiday customs of the general press is the publication of holiday interviews with official figures, such as the prime minister, the defense minister, the chief of staff or the president. Up until a few years ago, in the Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) press it was not customary to interview such personages, and certainly not to treat such interviews as a festive matter. In light of this, the series of holiday interviews with government leaders that were published by the independent Haredi newspapers on the eve of Pesach can be considered a real revolution, and another stage in the process of the Haredi community's becoming closer to officialdom. In contrast to this, the organ of the Degel Hatorah party, Yated Ne'eman, continued with its old policy of emphasizing the sermons of rabbis on the holiday rather than political figures, not to mention secular leaders.

Two Haredi newspapers, Mishpacha and Bakehila, published interviews with Prime Minister Ariel Sharon. In an interview with Mispacha, Sharon toadied to the religious public, as is common in such circumstances: "I am well versed in the customs of the seder, with all the dippings and the customs," "Let's not forget that my father-in-law was an important rabbi," "I worked a great deal to enforce the chametz law," "I won't allow the Arabs to loot the synagogues of Gush Katif."

The most important sentence in the interview is Sharon's apparent commitment that if it turns out that the graves on the route of the Trans-Israel Highway are Jewish, "a way will be found to stop the work on the road. We will not build roads in Israel at the expense of destroying Jewish burial caves." He made his most interesting comment when asked about Shas and Aryeh Deri: "Look, I can't understand everything that is happening within Shas. I must say that I'm unable to understand the processes there."

The newspaper Bakehila outdid itself when it published three holiday interviews - with Sharon, with Finance Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and with Deputy Prime Minister Shimon Peres. Peres said there, concerning the idea of the big political bang and the establishment of a party headed by Sharon and himself: "I don't believe in it. I don't think it's serious." He also explained that he wouldn't run for the presidency again.The reason: "I've had enough of deception and lies."

The local newspaper Hashavua B'Yerushalayim made do with interviews with Foreign Minister Silvan Shalom and with Deputy Minister for Social Affairs Avraham Ravitz. In reply to the question as to whether it was true that senior Kabbalist Rabbi Yitzhak Kadourie predicted that Shalom will be prime minister, the foreign minister replied: "He's not the only one. There are many rabbis who have expressed themselves in a similar fashion. Even the milkman from Ramat Gan said so."

Ravitz made a surprising announcement there: "I would be very pleased if Degel Hatorah were to go with Shas," and said that he prefers this to partnership with Agudath Israel. As is customary in the Haredi community, he of course made the idea contingent on the agreement of the Council of Torah Greats. Regarding the last elections in Agudath Israel, which were held in the 1970s, he said that "everyone stole votes there, with the exception of one list whose name I don't recall." He said that only a government law that will require primaries and will "be protected by the `goyim' [meaning secular Jews] can make kosher elections possible in our parties."