The High Court pointed out that only a few hundred university students were actually eligible for the stipends, which were tailored to help haredim and exclude others, while approximately 10,000 haredi yeshiva students were receiving the stipends each month.
Updated at 1:55 pm CDT
High Court Rules Government Stipends For Haredi Yeshiva Students Are Illegal And Must End
Shmarya Rosenberg • FailedMessiah.com
A seven-judge panel of Israel’s High Court of Justice headed by Supreme Court President Asher Grunis ruled today that giving government stipends to haredi yeshiva students is illegal and works at cross purposes with the stated government policy to encourage haredim to enter the workforce.
Giving stipends to haredi yeshiva students is illegal and discriminatory because almost no other students qualify to receive them, a member of that panel, High Court Justice Elyakim Rubinstein, who is himself Zionist Orthodox and who wrote the High Court's ruling, said.
The High Court’s ruling also noted that in the Diaspora, most haredim work for a living and that there is no reason why that could not be true in Israel as well.
In a previous ruling several years ago, as a compromise to avoid ending the haredi stipends then, the High Court agreed to a Netanyahu government proposal and required that state stipends be provided both to full time haredi yeshiva students for four years and to full time university students if the haredi yeshiva student stipends were to continue.. Both groups had to be married, have children, and have no other source of income. That ruling was made in part on assurances given to the high court that this would equalize the financial distribution to make it non-discriminatory.
But the compromise didn’t work.
Rubinstein noted that even though a very small number of married university students who met the restrictive criteria proposed to High Court years ago could get stipends, the stipends were still discriminatory because they were essentially tailored to include as many haredim as possible while excluding almost everyone else.
Rubinstein reportedly noted that only a few hundred university students were actually eligible for the stipends while approximately 10,000 haredi yeshiva students were receiving the stipends each month.
Haredim make up less than 10% of Israel’s population.
The stipends amount to about $287 per haredi yeshiva student per month. (The haredi yeshiva students also get other forms of government help, including welfare, that are not directly impacted by this ruling.)
Students currently receiving these stipends will continue to receive them through the end of the year.
The Knesset passed a bill last year that closed the stipend program and set the end of all stipend disbursements for December 2014.
The High Court’s new ruling stops the Knesset from renewing them.
MK Rabbi Yaakov Litzman of the Ashkenazi haredi United Torah Judaism Party (UTJ) slammed the High Court today, calling the ruling “a declaration of war on the rights of Torah students in Israel.”
“This is a declaration of war on the rights of Torah students in Israel. The court has turned itself into the 'sheriff' who executes the state's policy of hate and discrimination against haredi Jews,” Litzman fumed.
Fellow UTJ MK Meir Porush also lashed out at the High Court, which he claimed “continues a long string of discriminatory decisions against the haredi community and its way of life. It is shameful.”
The head of the Sefardi haredi Shas Party, Aryeh Deri, also was bitterly critical of the ruling and of the High Court.
The High Court “has joined the chorus of haters of haredi Jewry. We will not allow the court to turn us into the national whipping boy,” Deri said.
At the direction of their rabbinic leaders, a majority of haredi men of employment age study full time in yeshivas and rely on government stipends, welfare, charity and whatever meager income their wives earn rather than working themselves.
That policy of non-work is backed by haredi political leaders, including Litzman, Porush and Deri.
During the weekly Sunday morning cabinet meeting, Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu said that his government will integrate haredim into the workforce.
“We will propose laws to integrate them into the workforce, as we have been doing. We have already taken many steps in this direction, and there will be many more steps in the future,” Netanyahu said.
However, most of those steps were proposed and passed by Netanyahu’s Likud Party’s coalition partners, often over the objection of Likud or with its weak cooperation.
Netanyahu and Likud are believed to be likely to need the support of haredi political parties in order to retain power after the next election.
This need has caused Netanyahu and Likud to take steps to undermine many of the reforms meant to integrate haredim passed by his coalition, including essentially gutting the new universal draft law that would have seen thousands of haredim serve in Israel’s military just as other Jewish Israelis are required to do.
Today’s ruling was in response to an appeal to the High Court originally submitted in January 2011 by the National Union of Students, the Hiddush Foundation for Religious Freedom and Equality, the Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC), and several other Jewish groups. In turn, that appeal was based on a ruling of the High Court issued in June 2010 that held that state stipends given to haredi yeshiva students amounted to preferential treatment for those students that discriminated against university students. It was that 2010 ruling that prompted the government-initiated compromise that the High Court struck down today, the Times of Israel reported.
The High Court sharply criticized the government’s handling of the issue today, and Hiddush issued a statement saying that was a “mark of disgrace” for the previous Netanyahu-led government.
“The High Court has confirmed our claim that the so-called reform that the previous government enacted in the funds allocated to yeshiva students was not a reform at all, but a mere ploy with the aim of continuing to dish out the scandalous and discriminatory stipend. Woe be to the state whose government deceives its citizens,” Hiddush reportedly said in a statement.
A similar result to Netanyahu’s and Likud’s gutting of the draft law meant to compel haredim to serve their country like all other Jews do will likely draw a similar response from the High Court in the future.
The government’s budget for the years 2011-2014 provided about $29 million in monthly stipends to 9,400 haredi yeshiva students to “encourag[e] integration.”
But the High Court found that in practice the stipends greatly exceeded that budget – for example, $34.4 million in 2013 alone.
The court ruled that the government’s regulations governing these stipends were illegal and perpetuated distinctions between yeshiva students and “other groups, including women, those of other faiths, students belonging to other Jewish denominations and university students.”
Regarding the goals of the scholarship campaign, Rubinstein said the government’s intentions were “problematic” and confusing.
“The claim that funding yeshiva students over a long period of time — four years, without obligating them to acquire any professional training or skill set during this time — encourages them to enter the workforce at the end of said period, is extremely problematic,” Rubinstein wrote.
Additionally, there is no evidence the money brought any haredi yeshiva students into the workforce or that the stipend program was actually effectively designed to do so.
The government insisted it had increased the funds allocated to financial aid for university students along with introducing the stipends for haredi yeshiva students, and said that should be enough to allow the stipends to continue.
The judges rejected that, saying at best the aid to non-haredi students only somewhat “diminished the [large] inequality” between the university students and yeshiva students, rather than making the two groups “absolutely equal” in aid disbursement.
The court added that financial aid should be based on actual financial criteria, not on benefiting a particular group.
A longer term $5.8 million aid plan for some haredi yeshiva students who study full time into adulthood was approved by the court. However, Rubinstein called on the government to make sure the scope of this longer term program remains limited, “and that the few do not become many” – a clear warning that if the Netanyahu-led government tries to expand that program to cover today’s losses, the high Court will rule that to be illegal, as well.