Wartime budget slashes education funds, but not for the ultra-Orthodox, complain MKs

Amended 2024 budget leaves intact NIS 2 billion of special funds promised by government during coalition talks, though Haredi lawmakers claim they are actually losing the most

Sam Sokol is the Times of Israel's political correspondent. He was previously a reporter for the Jerusalem Post, Jewish Telegraphic Agency and Haaretz. He is the author of "Putin’s Hybrid War and the Jews"

Yeshiva students study at the Kamenitz Yeshiva, in Jerusalem on July 25, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)
Yeshiva students study at the Kamenitz Yeshiva, in Jerusalem on July 25, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

The amended 2024 state budget will keep billions in special funding for ultra-Orthodox education intact even as the government implements painful belt-tightening measures to cover the cost of the conflicts in Gaza and on the northern border, setting up a repeat of a bitter political fight now amplified by one of Israel’s most intense military operations in years.

Netanyahu has bragged that the wartime budget, which he pushed through the cabinet on Monday in the face of significant ministerial opposition, will actually increase overall education funding — a claim contradicted by Education Minister Yoav Kisch, who told reporters that his ministry would get NIS 300 million ($79.3 million) less than initially planned in 2024.

Per the amended budget, Israel’s education system stands to receive around NIS 82.6 billion ($21.8 billion).

While most ministries are likewise being forced to make painful cuts, over NIS 2 billion ($528 million) in special earmarks for ultra-Orthodox education remain in the budget for a second year in a row, as part of a package of special interest funds set aside by the government to make good on political promises made during coalition negotiations.

The figure, which comes on top of funds for Haredi schooling already included in the Education Ministry budget, includes over NIS 1 billion ($264 million) for yeshivas and NIS 590 million ($156 million) for instructors in schools that do not teach the state-mandated core curriculum, according to a breakdown calculated by the Calcalist business daily.

Money for private and party-linked educational institutions will be increased and while additional funds for teachers and full-time Talmud students have decreased under the new budget, both are still rising overall.

The government is giving “more to the Haredim and less” to everybody else, MK Moshe Tur-Paz (Yesh Atid) told The Times of Israel Tuesday following an emergency conference convened by the Knesset State Education Caucus.

Then-director of Jerusalem’s Education Department Moshe Tur-Paz, January 03, 2016. (Miriam Alster/FLASH90)

“They need to do this for coalition reasons and I don’t think they’re going to change it,” he said.

Over the past decade, Haredi parties have become staunch allies of Prime Netanyahu. In return, they have enjoyed a continuing monopoly over several issues of domestic policy related to religion and state, as well as sweeping exemptions for Haredi men from Israel’s mandatory military draft.

Following the 2022 general election, Netanyahu promised ultra-Orthodox political parties unprecedented billions for private, non-supervised educational institutions, which do not teach core subjects such as math and English. The earmarks sparked loud protests from opposition politicians but to little avail.

The Haredi push for these funds has not stopped amid the ongoing Israel-Hamas war: Only a month after the October 7 attack, ultra-Orthodox MKs called for Haredi schools to receive NIS 300 million from the discretionary pool, which had been frozen to be redirected to the war effort.

Labor MK Gilad Kariv, who heads the caucus, accused government figures of trying to “blind the public” with false claims that education funds were not being cut.

MK Michael Biton, whose National Unity party joined the coalition to bolster the war effort, complained that the government was abandoning the state education system to its fate, while special interests were getting fat checks.

“Sectoral groups are fighting for their budgets and everyone is taking care of themselves,” he said.

Labor MK Gilad Kariv speaks at a Knesset Finance Committee meeting on the approval of budgetary transfers in the education system, at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, on September 26, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Aviad Houminer-Rosenblum, deputy director of the Berl Katznelson Center think tank, accused government figures of playing a shell game with the money, cutting NIS 600 million from higher education while adding roughly the same amount to ultra-Orthodox schools.

“They are taking from one place and transferring to another so it confuses the issue,” he said.

Decreasing the general educational budget while giving more to a specific group “harms equality in educational opportunity,” said Labor MK Naama Lazimi.

She told The Times of Israel she supported fully funding ultra-Orthodox schools, but only those that teach a full core curriculum.

Labor MK and Reform Rabbi Gilad Kariv, center-left, shouts at United Torah Judaism MK and ultra-Orthodox Rabbi Yitzhak Pindrus, center-right, as he marches to the Western Wall in Jerusalem on February 22, 2023. (Erik Marmor/Flash90)

Ronen Katz, a spokesman for Shas lawmaker Haim Biton, a minister within the Education Ministry, argued that Haredi education was a fraction of the state school system, and always got a smaller piece of the pie. Per capita, Haredi students were actually suffering higher cuts.

“Everyone understands its a war and you have to cut things. Haredim always got 40-50 percent less than their peers in the general education system.”

Both Katz and United Torah Judaism MK Yitzhak Pindrus claimed that the amended budget actually left Haredi schools NIS 600 million poorer.

“Did you see Haredim celebrating over the last few days,” Katz asked.

Pindrus dismissed his Knesset colleagues’ concerns, stating that critics of the ultra-Orthodox “are always busy looking over their shoulders instead of trying to take care of problems.”

“What are they playing at? What’s their game,” he asked. “It’s an unfair political game.”

Carrie Keller-Lynn and JTA contributed to this report.

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