Cabinet to discuss siphoning NIS 164 million from ministries to fund yeshiva students

Proposal, put on agenda late Saturday night, would include an across-the-board budget cut to fund move demanded by Haredi parties; Lapid: This government ‘doesn’t have a heart’

Michael Bachner is a news editor at The Times of Israel

Illustrative: Yeshiva students study at the Mir Brachfeld yeshiva in Modi'in Ilit on August 26, 2018. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)
Illustrative: Yeshiva students study at the Mir Brachfeld yeshiva in Modi'in Ilit on August 26, 2018. (Aharon Krohn/Flash90)

The cabinet was set Sunday to discuss a proposal to allocate an additional NIS 164.5 million ($44.4 million) to fund increased stipends to yeshiva students, funding it via an across-the-board cut at all government ministries.

The sum would be on top of discretionary funds included in the budget to increase stipends for Haredi men who choose to engage in full-time study of religious texts instead of working and serving in the military.

The move — added to the cabinet meeting’s agenda late on Saturday night — has long been demanded by ultra-Orthodox coalition parties, who have griped that the enhanced benefits their community was guaranteed by the recent state budget weren’t sufficient.

Recent Hebrew media reports have indicated that the government has been weighing how to approve the measure while not increasing the overall budget and while avoiding public blowback. An initial reported decision earlier this month to fund the stipend increase by siphoning money off economic development in the Arab community was nixed by Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich last week.

According to the fresh proposal, approved Saturday night by Smotrich, NIS 79 million ($21.33 million) will be approved to increase state support to Haredi Torah study institutions; NIS 51 million ($13.77 million) will go toward increasing their number of students; NIS 15 million ($4.05 million) will be used to fund studies by non-Israelis in those institutions; and NIS 19.5 million ($5.27 million) will fund non-Haredi religious institutions, including institutions for girls, in the Gaza envelope area and those that encourage military service.

The proposal would increase the 2023 budget for Torah-teaching institutions to NIS 1.089 billion ($294.08 million).

Likud party chairman Benjamin Netanyahu, right, shakes hands with United Torah Judaism party leader Yitzhak Goldknopf in the Knesset plenum in Jerusalem on November 21, 2022. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Opposition Leader Yair Lapid quickly slammed the proposal, tweeting that “this is a government that doesn’t have a heart” — a likely reference to the pacemaker implant that Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu had a week ago following heart issues that doctors said had put the premier’s life in danger.

“When we asked the government to prevent a cut in the special education hours for children with disabilities, the reply was that ‘there is no money.’ Tonight they announced that they will cut [the budgets of] all government ministries to add NIS 164 million to Torah-teaching institutions,” Lapid lamented.

Cabinet Secretary Yossi Fuchs tweeted Saturday night that the proposal was merely to utilize funds remaining from a previous across-the-board budget cut approved in February, and that no new budget cut was being approved. An unnamed Prime Minister’s Office source was quoted by the Ynet news site saying there had previously been a “calculation error.”

Settlements and National Missions Minister Orit Strock, of Smotrich’s Religious Zionism, issued a supportive statement focusing on the portion of the new budget allocation dedicated to religious institutions for girls.

“We see immense importance to Torah studies for girls, and therefore promised before the election… to increase government support for these studies. Tomorrow we will, God willing, have the honor of fulfilling this promise,” Strock said.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu chairs a cabinet meeting at the prime minister’s office in Jerusalem, July 17, 2023. (Marc Israel Sellem/POOL)

Last month, the United Torah Judaism party threatened to stop voting with the coalition until the Haredi party received the funds it was demanding.

The current 2023-2024 state budget includes NIS 13.7 billion in discretionary spending, NIS 3.7 billion of which was allocated for increasing the budget for stipends for full-time yeshiva students.

Another NIS 1.2 billion is budgeted for private, non-supervised Haredi educational institutions, many of which do not teach core subjects such as math and English, while additional funds will go to the official Haredi education system, and for construction of buildings for religious purposes and supporting Haredi culture and identity.

The budget also expands stipends to yeshiva students to the tune of up to NIS 250 million ($68 million), using any surplus funds left over from ultra-Orthodox schools. That deal, which quelled rebellion among a subsection of ultra-Orthodox politicians, also included authorization to retroactively pay yeshiva students a grant from the beginning of 2023.

The budget has been denounced by the opposition as “reckless,” while treasury officials warned it could lead to lost gross domestic product in the coming years.

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