Court okays state food voucher program said to prioritize ultra-Orthodox

High Court clears Shas-led plan, lifting injunction it issued amid criticism scheme focuses on large, religious families at expense of Holocaust survivors, single parent families

A young Jewish boy eats at the Yad Ezra V'Shulamit center in Jerusalem, which serves hot lunch every day to more than 1,200 children under the poverty line. September 27, 2011. (Uri Lenz/Flash90)
Illustrative: A young Jewish boy eats at the Yad Ezra V'Shulamit center in Jerusalem, which serves hot lunch every day to more than 1,200 children under the poverty line. September 27, 2011. (Uri Lenz/Flash90)

The High Court of Justice on Wednesday decided to allow the rollout of a controversial government food stamp program ahead of the upcoming Rosh Hashanah holiday, but ordered the government to review the eligibility criteria for future allocations scheduled for 2024.

Last Thursday, the court issued a temporary injunction against the program and halted its launch, in response to petitions that argued it prioritized ultra-Orthodox families while other citizens also facing food insecurity were not eligible for the food vouchers.

Wednesday’s ruling cleared the way for the distribution of NIS 400 million ($104 million) in food vouchers two days before the Jewish New Year, with a specific emphasis on families with large numbers of children. However, another NIS 600 million ($156 million) set to be handed out next year was frozen until a further ruling is made by the High Court.

The money was allocated for distribution last week by the Knesset Finance Committee under a budget item designed to advance food security for citizens lacking a regular source of healthy nutrition. The program is largely the brainchild of the ultra-Orthodox Shas party, led by MK Aryeh Deri, and the Interior Ministry run by Shas minister Moshe Arbel.

Yifat Sollel, deputy director of the Hiddush organization, one of the petitioners in the case, charged that the program is designed to subsidize lavish holiday feasts for religious celebrants, noting that food insecurity is already addressed by a state food stamp program.

“Food insecurity and poverty are being confused here in order to justify criteria that favor the ultra-Orthodox public,” she said. “The ultra-Orthodox public suffers from poverty, and does not suffer from food insecurity.”

“The state food security project… distributes monthly cards, and along with them it creates a process of building and enabling the families to eat healthily and to manage their finances properly and educates on healthy nutrition and also distributes baskets of fruits and vegetables,” she said. “Instead of adding funds to a project that does promote food security, Deri and his friends cynically want to hand out gifts for the holidays.”

Interior and Health Minister Moshe Arbel arrives for a cabinet meeting at the Prime Minister’s office in Jerusalem on September 10, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Attorney Ariel Barzilai, head of the finance department at the Movement for the Quality of Government, which also petitioned the court against the initiative, said in a statement the lobby group “congratulates the court for demanding that the government conduct itself in a more transparent and equitable manner in the future.”

Arbel, the interior minister, welcomed the court decision, saying the program would help “hundreds of thousands of people in the State of Israel from all sectors without exception.”

The Justice Ministry last month gave the Interior Ministry the green light to begin the program, a significant win for Shas ahead of the October 31 municipal elections.

Under the program, families with large numbers of children will be eligible to receive vouchers for NIS 2,400 ($639) per month. After Finance Ministry pressure, the Interior Ministry agreed to partially change the eligibility criteria to allow more Holocaust survivors and single parents to benefit from the aid, but some 12,000 will be left out.

The program has long been associated with Deri, who made it a central part of his party’s campaign ahead of the November 2022 Knesset elections. Deri was briefly interior minister following the government’s formation in late December but was removed from his post weeks later over a recent conviction for tax evasion, leading him to tap Arbel to serve in his stead.

The court’s temporary injunction against the program last week was met with opprobrium by Shas and Justice Minister Yariv Levin, a leading proponent of coalition efforts to pass legislation overhauling the judicial system, who claimed it further underscored the need to curb the judiciary’s powers.

Most Popular
read more: