Thousands in Jerusalem rally against budget, deals for ultra-Orthodox

Protesters accuse government of looting state coffers to meet demands from Haredi politicians, at demonstration organized by same activists behind anti-judicial overhaul campaign

Israelis protest against a budget proposal in Jerusalem, Tuesday, May 23, 2023. (AP/Mahmoud Illean)
Israelis protest against a budget proposal in Jerusalem, Tuesday, May 23, 2023. (AP/Mahmoud Illean)

Thousands of Israelis on Tuesday protested the allocation of funds to ultra-Orthodox Jews in the government’s proposed state budget, as lawmakers gathered to vote on the fiscal plan.

Drum-beating protesters, bearing Israeli flags, marched through Jerusalem to parliament as voting got underway Tuesday night, accusing the ruling coalition of “looting” the state’s money.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, already the country’s longest-serving premier, took power again in December in a coalition with extreme right and ultra-Orthodox Jewish parties.

The budgets for 2023 and 2024 include at least NIS 5.9 billion ($1.6 billion) in discretionary earmarks for the ultra-Orthodox community that had been demanded by coalition partners but which are largely unpopular with the general public.

These include grants to yeshiva students, unregulated religious schools that do not teach core subjects like math and science, and funding a food stamp program that is not tied to working and is criticized as tailored to disproportionately benefit the ultra-Orthodox community.

On Monday, Netanyahu announced the state would set aside NIS 250 million ($67.5 million) to support married ultra-Orthodox Jewish men who choose to study religious texts rather than work. The grant was part of a last-minute deal with United Torah Judaism, one of the ultra-Orthodox coalition parties, to ensure their support for the budget.

Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu stands in the Knesset plenum during a debate and vote on the state budget, May 23, 2023. (Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

It is in addition to other allocations traditionally made to ultra-Orthodox communities in various ministerial budget allocations.

The demonstration was organized by the same group of activists who have been protesting the government’s judicial reform plans since January.

Those weekly protests have continued, drawing tens of thousands, even after Netanyahu on March 27 announced a “pause” to allow for talks on the overhaul which were moving through parliament and split the nation.

The proposals to curtail the powers of the Supreme Court and give politicians greater powers over the selection of judges have sparked fears in Israel’s tech and financial sectors that foreign investors would be scared away.

Opposition head Yair Lapid said the budget was “destructive” as it included funding for ultra-Orthodox Jews that discourage them from taking a more active part in the Israeli economy.

“This is a budget that encourages people to not pursue higher education, not work, not provide for their children,” he said, lamenting that it contained “no growth engines, no remedy for the high cost of living, only endless extortion.”

Israelis protest against a budget proposal in Jerusalem, Tuesday, May 23, 2023. (AP/Mahmoud Illean)

Netanyahu pledged that parliament would approve the fiscal budget.

“We are approving a responsible budget, a budget that keeps the fiscal framework, a budget that is being praised by rating agencies,” Netanyahu said ahead of the vote.

Asher Blass, a professor of economics at Ashkelon Academic College, said that with inflation and interest rates rising, and a weaker shekel, Israel needed more budget “growth engines” rather than “transfer payments” to ultra-Orthodox institutions that effectively discourage higher education.

But he told AFP the projected budget deficit is not as bad as in some previous years, though “the trajectory is not good.”

In February the Bank of Israel estimated the budget deficit would be close to one percent of gross domestic product in 2023 and 2024.

Times of Israel staff contributed to this report.

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