Ultra-Orthodox leaders lashed out on Sunday after the High Court of Justice ordered the state to cancel benefits awarded to yeshiva students on the grounds that they illegally discriminate against university students.
A seven-judge panel headed by Supreme Court President Asher Grunis ruled Sunday that the state could no longer grant stipends and scholarships to yeshiva students in the 2014-2015 school year, saying the benefits did not encourage the students to enter the job market upon completing their studies, as they were meant to do.
The monthly stipends, distributed over a period of four years, are meant to ensure that yeshiva students pocket the minimum wage — currently more than NIS 4,000 ($1,150) per month — each month for the duration of their studies. Once they have left yeshiva, they are expected to enter the job market and begin supporting themselves.
The ruling noted that outside of Israel, most of the ultra-Orthodox “work for a living.”
After the verdict was announced early Sunday afternoon, ultra-Orthodox politicians accused the judges of getting “carried away” and “ganging up” on the ultra-Orthodox public.
“The court has gotten caught up in the atmosphere of ganging up on the ultra-Orthodox. The State of Israel funds [university] students much more than yeshiva students, but the court won’t define that as discrimination,” said MK Eliezer Moses, head of the United Torah Judaism faction.
The ruling followed a January 2011 appeal by a group of organizations — the National Union of Students, the Hiddush foundation for religious freedom and equality, the Reform Movement’s Israel Religious Action Center, and other Jewish groups. It was based on a previous verdict from June 2010, in which the Supreme Court ruled that state scholarships granted to yeshiva students was preferential treatment that discriminated against university students, who were not eligible to receive government benefits throughout their studies.
Hiddush said Sunday that the court’s ruling and its “harsh criticism” of the government was a “mark of disgrace” for the previous administration.
“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,” the organization said in a statement. “Woe be to the state whose government deceives its citizens.”
On its Facebook page, IRAC called the ruling “an important step toward promoting equality in Israel and integrating the ultra-Orthodox in the workforce,” an objective the organization said was “vital to the future of the state.”
In 2010, the government’s budget regulations for the years 2011-2014 provided NIS 100 million in public funds to 9,400 yeshiva students in the form of monthly scholarships, with the stated objective of “encouraging integration.” The judges found that the funds distributed in practice greatly exceeded the campaign’s budget, peaking at NIS 127 million-138 million between 2010 and 2012 and NIS 120 million in 2013.
Sunday’s ruling decreed that the government’s regulations were illegal, as they perpetuated the distinction drawn between yeshiva students and “other groups, including women, those of other faiths, students belonging to other Jewish denominations and university students.”
Moreover, the scholarships, Justice Elyakim Rubinstein said in the verdict, were meant to induce “social change involving the integration of the ultra-Orthodox public in Israeli society” — an objective the project fell short of achieving.
“This is a process that takes time, and it cannot magically take place overnight,” wrote Rubinstein.
He added that in New York and all over the United States, there were hundreds of thousands of ultra-Orthodox “who work for a living.”
Regarding the goals of the scholarship campaign, Rubinstein said the government’s intentions were “problematic” and difficult to understand.
“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.
While the government said it had increased the funds allocated to financial aid for university students parallel to introducing the new scholarship for yeshiva students, the judges rejected the claim, saying the bigger aid budget only “diminished the inequality” between the university students and yeshiva students, rather than making the two groups “absolutely equal.”
He added that any financial aid scheme should be based on purely financial criteria, rather than singling out a particular group.
Regarding a longer-term scheme to aid yeshiva students who continue to pursue religious studies, the judges approved a government decision to award such students funds amounting to NIS 20 million.
Rubinstein called on the government to ensure that the scope of the longer-term aid program remains limited, “and that the few do not become many.”
Sunday’s verdict is expected to take effect in January 2015.