Knesset protest against wartime budget cuts takes aim at Haredi earmarks

Demonstrators in Jerusalem decry government’s amended plan as sectarian, allege a lack of funding for secular education and mental health services

Demonstrators gather outside the Knesset to protest the government's 2024 wartime budget on February 19, 2024. (Charlie Summers/Times of Israel)
Demonstrators gather outside the Knesset to protest the government's 2024 wartime budget on February 19, 2024. (Charlie Summers/Times of Israel)

Over 100 demonstrators gathered Monday evening in front of the Knesset evening to protest the government’s newly amended 2024 budget, which critics say allocates funds to coalition-linked interests while slashing spending for society at large.

Along with lambasting the new budget, which passed its first reading in the Knesset plenum last week, the demonstrators chanted slogans calling for elections to replace Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu and for the return of the hostages who remain captive in Gaza.

Incensed by the coalition’s decision to cut funding for secular education and health services while keeping the budget for Torah institutions at a similar level to that of last year, protesters dubbed the ruling coalition a “government of looters” and demanded its fall.

The amended budget is expected to come up for its final votes before passage early next month.

The NIS 582 billion ($155 billion) budget includes around NIS 70 billion ($18.6 billion) of extra spending to pay for the war against the Hamas terror group in Gaza, with the money largely coming from across-the-board cuts to government services.

Using loudspeakers directed at the Knesset, a mix of tech entrepreneurs, reservists and high school students spoke to the crowd, detailing how their lives will be made worse by the budget cuts and touching on Israel’s longstanding religious-secular divides.

“Am I, a young secular Jew from Haifa, worth less than the Haredim? Why? Do I deserve less just because I’m not from the same sector that votes for you in elections? Where is my place in a country like this?” shouted Gilad Katz, a 16-year-old activist.

Katz accused the Netanyahu-led government of a double standard benefiting Israel’s ultra-Orthodox communities while funding for youth movements and state-secular schools took a hit.

Youth activist Gilad Katz speaks at Jerusalem demonstration near the Knesset against the government’s 2024 budget on February 19, 2024. (Charlie Summers/Times of Israel)

“Youth movements have been an important factor in this war. And now, the State of Israel has decided to cut the budget for youth movements,” said Katz, noting his own work gathering equipment and helping displaced people. “These movements raise quality, valuable, Zionist people, but this government cares more about the hesder yeshivas and Torah education.” Hesder is a program for Religious Zionist, not ultra-Orthodox, students to combine yeshiva studies with their mandatory army service.

Netanyahu’s governing coalition relies on the support of ultra-Orthodox parties which have long pushed for increased funding to Haredi schools, many of which do not teach core secular studies.

Despite a 5% cut in the state budget applying to all government ministries, a transfer of NIS 130 million ($36 million) to Torah institutions, sourced from discretionary coalition funds promised as part of coalition agreements, will keep funds for Haredi schooling at a similar level to that of last year — roughly NIS 1.7 billion ($468 million). According to the Globes business newspaper, the pre-amended budget for Haredi school was NIS 2 billion.

Contrary to the protesters, ultra-Orthodox politicians claim that funds for Haredi education have suffered significant cuts in the 2024 budget.

Last month Shas MK Uriel Buso claimed that the government had not made good on promises to allocate NIS 1 billion ($273 million) for yeshiva education laid out in coalition agreements. He told the Knesset Channel the shortfall amounted to a 50% cut to the yeshiva budget.

According to Uri Hass, a lawyer in the economic division of the Movement for Quality Government in Israel, the budget will cut NIS 800 million ($220 million) from the state-secular education budget and NIS 300 million ($83 million) from early childhood education. He told the crowd that he is rarely inclined to protest, but felt a need to speak out against this budget which, he said, “damages the economy and productivity.”

A report from Israeli financial site TheMarker roughly aligns with Hass’s figures. The government plans to cut the education budget over the course of two years, with an initial drop of NIS 300 million ($83 million) in 2024, then NIS 500 million ($138 million) in 2025. Early childhood education will reportedly decrease by NIS 200 million ($55 million).

“When we see that instead of trying to restore and budget high-quality public services, the government is continuing to operate ineffective ministries that are not at all helpful to the war just in order to help its friends… We must shout,” Hass said.

Tech entrepreneur Ronit Harpaz accused the government of putting forth a budget that includes “no money to displaced Gaza envelope residents, but money to the hilltop youth” – a reference to activist settlers.

She claimed that government officials were ignoring the shrinking tech industry, which could no longer be counted on to buttress the economy.

High-tech entrepreneur Ronit Harpaz speaks at demonstration next to the Knesset against the government’s newly revised budget on February 19, 2024. (Charlie Summers/Times of Israel)

“This budget doesn’t take into account that investment in high-tech has already been shuttered, that investors have fled, the world has given up on us,” Harpaz said.

On Monday, preliminary data showed that Israel’s economy had shrunk by 19.6% in the last quarter of 2023 due to the war, marking the heaviest drop since the coronavirus pandemic.

The war sparked by Hamas’s October 7 attack saw hundreds of thousands of reservists called up and large swaths of the Gaza and Lebanon border evacuated, with businesses shutting and people staying home under a rain of rockets as the country shifted to a war footing.

Nir Shohat, who was among those called up to fight, was also displaced from his home in Kibbutz Nir Am near the Gaza border following Hamas’s assault. He accused the government of failing to plan for or fund the area’s revival.

“You [the Israeli government] haven’t decided when or how you will bring the Gaza envelope and Sderot residents back to their homes, but you did succeed in deciding to transfer millions to yeshiva budgets,” he said. “And this is at the same time that you supposedly couldn’t find sources of funding for resilience centers for people who are falling apart, the centers that we need in order to get up and recover.”

Despite the skyrocketing need for mental health care among residents of devastated Gaza border communities, the government has held off on significantly increasing the budget for so-called resilience centers to treat those dealing with trauma. The Health Ministry estimated last month that NIS 100 million would be needed to keep these centers running without cutting services; however, its allotted budget remains similar to that of last year.

On February 19, 2024, protesters outside the Knesset building in Jerusalem hold a sign that reads: “The Gaza Envelope against the looting,” referring to the government’s wartime budget bill. (Charlie Summers/Times of Israel)

Law enforcement kept the rally tightly contained, with two layers of barricades separating the protest from the parliamentary building. Last month, anti-government demonstrators repeatedly blocked an access road to the Knesset.

The current plan to amend the budget does not contain any provisions for reducing the number of government departments, despite the Finance Ministry’s recommendation that 10 superfluous ministries — including the Settlements and National Missions Ministry, the Jerusalem and Jewish Tradition Ministry, and the Intelligence Ministry — be closed to cover the wartime shortfall.

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich has defended the plan as a “responsible budget that will allow the government to wage the war until victory.”

“Some of the vulnerabilities will accompany us in the foreseeable future and burden the economy… This is a crisis. There is a permanent increase that will accompany us in the coming years in the budget including civilian expenses – additional health, mental health, welfare, pensions, victims of hostilities, compensation and more,” he said earlier this month in the Knesset ahead of a vote on the bill.

Sam Sokol contributed to this report.

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