Thousands of anti-government demonstrators marched through the ultra-Orthodox city of Bnei Brak on Wednesday night to protest against the government’s plans to allocate large sums of money to the ultra-Orthodox community — a move that has drawn criticism from within the Finance Ministry for being unsustainable in the long term.
Approximately 4,000 people marched from the Ayalon Mall in neighboring Ramat Gan, according to Channel 12 news. Police closed roads in the area and warned the public to expect heavy traffic.
Demonstrators were greeted by local residents who set up stations with food and drink, in scenes similar to a previous march two months ago. According to Hebrew media reports, minor scuffles between some demonstrators and counter-protesters were witnessed, but the march appeared to pass without major incidents.
“We are marching on Bnei Brak to make it clear to the government that is destroying our home — and in particular to the ultra-Orthodox leadership, which is with one hand collaborating with the dictatorship and with the other hand looting the coffers — that the donkeys are fed up,” a statement from organizers said before the rally.
“The donkeys that bear the burden of service and the economy have ended up being the suckers that fill the public coffers, which has become a political bribe fund for friends of [United Torah Judaism MK Moshe] Gafni and [Finance Minister Bezalel] Smotrich,” they said.
They also said they believed the government would turn its sights to passing its controversial judicial overhaul plan after the budget is approved.
תודה בני ברק. אף פעם לא מאכזבים! מקבלים את המפגינים עם כיבוד. ואייי הפוליטיקאים אוכלים את הלב. ככה ננצח את הפילוג שהם השרישו פה. דרך בני ברק. תודההה לכם♥️???? פיס pic.twitter.com/fAknOaACf7
— daniel amram – דניאל עמרם (@danielamram3) May 17, 2023
While the demonstrators have so far focused on opposing the government’s planned overhaul, they have now turned their attention to the huge allocations of money given to coalition parties as part of the latest budget. The major issues targeted by government critics were the approval of NIS 13.7 billion ($4 billion) in discretionary funds, mostly for the ultra-Orthodox community, and a controversial planned municipal tax fund that would take money from richer towns and redistribute it to poorer ones.
A protester told the Walla news site that the goal of the march was to spread awareness of the unfair relationship between different communities in Israel.
“The demonstration is not against the Haredi public, but against their leadership that perpetuates injustice, which in the long term is not good for the country. I hope that Gafni will go home. After 19 weeks in the streets, after I was arrested more than once, we understand that the overhaul aims to serve certain sectors as well. The government allows this injustice,” he said.
Out of the approved NIS 13.7 billion in discretionary funds, about NIS 3.7 billion ($1 billion) is promised to be spent on increasing the budget for stipends at Haredi yeshiva institutions. About NIS 1 billion ($270 million) is directed as an allowance for a food voucher program being pushed by Shas leader Aryeh Deri. Another NIS 1.2 billion ($330 million) is budgeted for private, non-supervised educational institutions, which do not teach core subjects such as math and English. Additional funds will be funneled for ultra-Orthodox education, constructing religious buildings and supporting Haredi Jewish culture and identity.
According to a report Tuesday, Haredi politicians have demanded even more funds than what was initially approved in order to secure passage of the state budget. If the bills aren’t passed by May 29, an automatic dissolution of the Knesset and snap elections are triggered.
Ahead of the approval of the funds on Sunday, the Finance Ministry warned that the promised money could lead to trillions of shekels in lost gross domestic product in the coming years.
The ministry’s Budgets Department head Yogev Gardos said that the allocation of funds to ultra-Orthodox institutions and initiatives creates negative incentives for Haredi men to seek employment and will harm the country’s labor market and the economy as a whole.
Furthermore, Gardos cautioned, if more Haredi men are not encouraged to work, by 2065, the government will have to increase direct taxes by 16 percent to maintain the same level of services that it provides without increasing the deficit.
In recent days the government has advanced a plan that will take a percentage of property taxes collected from local businesses by municipal authorities, to be put into a fund that will go to help municipalities that have more modest commercial activity and are located farther from Israel’s center.
Several local governments across Israel launched a strike in response to the plan, and mayors have vowed they won’t transfer the requested money to the fund.
Critics accuse the coalition of planning to use the funds to pay for sectoral demands made by coalition partners, like subsidies to the ultra-Orthodox. They also note that settlements in the West Bank are exempt from contributing to the fund and that it is structured in a way that makes Arab municipalities less likely to benefit. Another argument is that it punishes communities that have already invested in attracting businesses, and takes money that would otherwise be directed toward improving services, such as education and culture.
Backers of the plan say it will help less wealthy municipalities incentivize residential real estate instead of business — though businesses pay more tax and are therefore currently more attractive to municipal authorities — and have put an emphasis on the fund helping to develop communities far from Israel’s center.
Wednesday’s event is the second protest march organized by anti-government activists to target Bnei Brak.
In March, thousands of demonstrators marched through the city against the judicial overhaul. The event had faced criticism ahead of time, with some on the right accusing protesters of vilifying and harassing citizens who are not involved in the legislation, while even some protest backers said it was in bad taste.
Still, organizers pressed on, saying they had not come to attack Haredi residents but to make clear to them that they, and their public representatives, can not stand aside and allow the radical shakeup of the justice system and its consequences to pass.
Carrie Keller-Lynn contributed to this report.