Who Will Be Mr. Haredi Education?

The politician who goes to bat for the ultra-Orthodox education system in the Netanyahu government will be seen as a hero to his constituency. No one is taking the challenge laying down.

No less than three members of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu's government are claiming the title of minister of Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) education: Meir Porush, the deputy education minister; Meshulam Nahari, a minister without portfolio in the Prime Minister's Office; and Moshe Gafni, chairman of the Knesset Finance Committee.

Each sees himself as responsible for the Haredi school system and its budget. And though three is a crowd, Deputy Health Minister Yaakov Litzman, chairman of United Torah Judaism, is attempting to advance the appointment of Avraham Horn, of the Gerrer branch of Hasidim, as an official adviser to the prime minister on ultra-Orthodox education.

Just six weeks ago, at the height of coalition negotiations, newly-designated Education Minister Gideon Saar and others in the Likud stood their ground against the demands of Shas that its member, Meshulam Nahari, be put in charge of Haredi schools.

The Likud refused, and the coalition was formed. But instead of just one deputy minister of ultra-Orthodox education, the government acquired several senior Haredi figures claiming the right to oversee the Haredi school system, a matter of major concern to their constituencies.

While MK Meir Porush of United Torah Judaism (UTJ) was taking his first steps as deputy education minister, Shas' Nahari (minister without portfolio in the PM's Office) declared he would continue to deal with Haredi education as he did in his previous stint in the PM's Office.

MK Moshe Gafni (UTJ), Knesset Finance Committee chairman, was quoted in Haredi newspapers as saying he would assist Porush, because one of his most important tasks was to prevent "discrimination against Haredi education."

Meanwhile UTJ Knesset faction chairman, MK Yaakov Litzman, deputy health minister, was advancing a senior party member as a candidate to take charge in the area of - surprise - Haredi education.

Five press releases for every shekel

So just who is the "minister" of Haredi education? Each of the four is backed by a different party voice in print - Litzman by Hamodia; Gafni by Yated Ne'eman; Porush by Hamevaser, and Nahari by Yom Leyom. During this Knesset term, says an independent Haredi newspaper commentator, "for every shekel poured into Haredi education, we'll get five press releases."

None of those named above bears the official title of "supervisor" of Haredi education, but among those claiming the crown it seems that Meir Porush, deputy minister of education, has it almost within reach. It's true that no such authority is spelled out in the coalition agreement between the Likud and UTJ, but he is the only one of the four claimants who is standing where decisions are taken.

The ceremony last week to mark the changeover of the ministry's director-general was also used to mark Porush's entrance into his new role. Sources close to Porush told Haredi newspapers at the time that Porush, and no one else, would be the "minister" for Haredi education.

This is exactly what UTJ chairman Yaakov Litzman, whose relations with Porush have been muddy for some time, fears.

Not only because of Litzman's opposition to Porush's run for mayor in Jerusalem last November, but also because of their bitter battle for control of the organization responsible for the so-called independent Haredi school network.

Now Litzman is making final efforts to have Avraham Horn of the Gerrer Hasidim named adviser to the government on Haredi education. However, because of opposition from Porush, Gafni and Saar, Horn will probably have to make do with the title of adviser on Haredi "matters." The swiftness with which this first step by Litzman was blocked testifies to the robust nature of the competition. Litzman, however, hasn't yet uttered his last word.

Meanwhile, Netanyahu has granted Meshulam Nahari the right to deal with matters connected to Judaism and Jewish education abroad, what is termed "Jewish heritage." What this means, in fact, his followers say, is that he will deal with Haredi education. Two weeks ago Nahari was already working on a NIS 60 million advance for yeshiva and kollel students.

Nahari's followers say that "people are working at cross purposes and there's no coordination. Porush and Litzman aren't talking, and Porush and Nahari aren't on the same wavelength. Everyone is trying to impose his own agenda. What's certain is that it won't be good for the [education] system."

The Education Ministry, in answer to a query by Haaretz, said: "Minister Gideon Saar is responsible for the education of all Israeli children, in all sectors, and he is the only one who is responsible." A sharp reply, testifying to the degree of haze surrounding this matter.