Shas' Mosques

Shas party spiritual leader Rabbi Ovadia Yosef could not have dreamed of the coalition's next major achievement, even in his most terrifying nightmares.

Thanks to the ultra-Orthodox Sephardi party's coalition agreements, the state will allocate NIS 21.3 million to building churches and mosques. That sum will be added to the NIS 8.4 million already budgeted for non-Jewish houses of worship (plus, apparently, the nearly NIS 10 million that remains in coffers from previous years).

There is no doubt that construction of synagogues and, particularly, mikvehs tops Rabbi Yosef's list of priorities. Thus, through the coalition agreements, Shas received an additional budget of NIS 85 million to erect sacred buildings. But officials in the Attorney General's Office insist that egalitarianism demands that non-Jewish sacred spaces must receive the same proportion of funds as Jewish spaces - that is, about 20 percent, befitting the 20 percent of Israel's citizens who are non-Jews. Because funding to Shas could not be decreased, a decision was made to transfer a total of NIS 106.3 million, of which NIS 21.3 million would be allocated to the Interior Ministry to build non-Jewish houses of worship.

Can Israel now expect a building boom in non-Jewish sacred structures? Not necessarily. For the last three years, the budget to build places of worship stood at NIS 17-20 million (including surpluses from previous years). There are apparently not enough nonprofit religious organizations in the Arab sector that can meet the state's budgetary conditions. Thus, that sector cannot put allocated funds to full use. There may well be a NIS 30 million surplus in those coffers this year.

Rich? Probably also corrupt

Those who believe that Israel's crisis of faith is limited to its top three political leaders are wrong. New research from the University of Haifa indicates that the crisis has reached financial elites as well.

Sixty percent of Israel's citizens believe that corruption and unjust exploitation of financial systems are two of the leading reasons for achievement of wealth. In practical terms, this data reveals that like politicians, wealthy individuals are automatically suspected of corruption or shady business practices. This statistic appears even graver when one considers current financial data.

The study, conducted by Professor Arye Rattner and Dr. Meir Yaish, is based on a survey of an exceptionally large sample of 1,200 individuals, carried out between May 2006 and March 2007. The study reveals no objection to the existence of rich and poor populations.

About 90 percent of those surveyed agreed with the statement, "It is fair that certain people have more money as long as there is equal opportunity," and, "People are entitled to keep what they earn even if it means some will be wealthier than others."

However, 60 percent of Israelis believe that one of the main causes of poverty is the lack of equal opportunity. The survey, which began before and continued after the Second Lebanon War, sheds a particularly embarrassing light on public perception of Israel's government. Only 9 percent of respondents agreed that the government is doing the right things, and only 10 percent believe that it operates on behalf of the entire public.

Other findings are also highly troubling. Among the Jewish public, the rate of abiding trust in the High Court deteriorated from 74 percent in 2000 to 51 percent currently. Even if this indicates a high level of trust in comparison with other government institutions, it is quite clear that the status of the High Court has eroded.

The new police commissioner would be wise to note that the rate of the Jewish public's trust in the police force decreased from 29 percent in 2005 (after the intifada waned) to a current 15 percent. However, the survey was conducted before the publication of the Zeiler Commission report, which slammed the police. Thus, it is fair to assume that newer data would reveal an even lower rate of trust. The rate of trust among the Jewish population is lower than that among the Arab population - 23 percent. Researchers agree that there is apparently a crisis of public faith in law and order.

The fast track

Justice Minister Daniel Friedmann's bill to amend the composition of the Judicial Appointments Committee (JAC) will apparently beat all his other reforms, in its extraordinarily swift progress to becoming law.

That is the prediction of MK Menahem Ben-Sasson (Kadima), who chairs the Knesset Constitution, Law and Justice Committee. Since enactment of the bill depends on that committee, one may fairly assume that exactly that will happen. Ben-Sasson says there is broad Knesset support for the bill, and that he intends to accelerate its handling, after it is passed in a first reading.

The JAC currently has nine members: Three High Court representatives, two cabinet members, two Knesset members, and two members of the Israel Bar Association. The bill proposes two amendments to the committee's composition. One of them is replacing two High Court justices with retired District Court judges. Ben-Sasson believes this element of the bill will easily pass in Knesset, although one of the retired District Court judges may be replaced by a retired Magistrate's Court judge. In either case, the goal of dismantling the bloc of High Court justices will be achieved.

The second aspect of the bill demands that the Constitution, Law and Justice Committee chair and an academic representative join deliberations of High Court judicial appointments. The addition of an academic representative is not expected to provoke great opposition. However, Ben-Sasson predicts there will be an argument surrounding the addition of a fifth politician (in this case, himself) to the committee, who would join two MKs and two cabinet members.

This element of the bill may not pass. The fifth politician may be replaced by a representative from another sector, and the entire concept of enlarging the committee for High Court appointments may be scrapped.

A one-child gap

One year ago, Haaretz publicized the fact that, after remaining steady for 15 years, the fertility rate in the Arab sector was plummeting.

The average fertility rate of Muslim women in Israel remained 4.7 children per woman from 1985-2000. Data from the Central Bureau of Statistics (CBS) indicates that in 2005, that figure dropped to 4 children per woman. Last month, the CBS published a series of data that permits a close estimation of the predicted fertility rate for 2006. (CBS will publish final statistics for that year in another six months.)

Calculations by Gilad Malach, the head of the Kadima party's research and policy department, indicate that the drop is a continuing trend and that the fertility rate in the Muslim population in Israel is now 3.9 children per woman. He believes that while these are not final statistics, they are a close reflection of reality.

The fertility rate in the Jewish population is gradually climbing because of high fertility among ultra-Orthodox Jews, and it now stands at 2.7 children per woman. Thus, the gap in fertility between Muslims and Jews is approaching only one child.

The fertility rate among Arab Israeli women (Muslim, Christian or Druze) is lower than that of Muslim women alone, and it now stands at 3.6 children per woman. Thus, the gap among Jewish and Arab women is already only one child.

The reason for the lower rate among Arab women as a whole is the particularly low fertility rate of Christian Arab women (2.1 children per woman in 2006), which approaches the fertility rate of Christians in Europe. A fertility rate of 2.1 children is exactly that required to preserve the current size of a population.