Budget Cuts

Israel's New Plan For Ultra-Orthodox Jews

The Israeli Treasury’s plans to hit the ultra-Orthodox with deep budget cuts, leaked to the press yesterday, represent an encouraging step, writes Sahar Segal.

This year’s Israeli elections were about the ultra-Orthodox, not the Palestinians. Israelis said they were tired of the ultra-Orthodox not serving in the military, largely not working, and taking tremendous amounts of welfare both due to unemployment and high birthrate. Shas, their biggest party, has long been a coalition kingmaker and could thus get its constituency child subsidies and welfare. But no longer.

For the first time since its establishment in 1984, Shas did not enter the coalition after elections. The party’s only other experiences with being in the opposition were between 1993 and 1996, after one of its leaders was charged with corruption, and when the party exited the coalition (back when Barak was PM) over disagreement with left-wing Meretz regarding the Camp David talks. The first result of this new coalition: Sharansky’s plan to create a permanent egalitarian section by the Kotel has been adopted. The second: the Israeli Treasury’s plans for the ultra-Orthodox, leaked to the press yesterday.

For one, the treasury plans to halve the budgets of public schools that don’t administer Israeli state tests—that is, don’t teach math, or science, or literature, or history. There are Haredi public schools in Israel that are legally not required to teach these subjects, and even those that are required to teach some of them rarely do. The state will also stop funding private schools, since they have even fewer educational requirements.

Encouragingly, day care subsidies will be contingent on both parents being employed rather than just on mothers’ employment, since in the Israeli ultra-Orthodox communities, women work far more then men, who often receive subsidies to study in yeshiva all day—regardless of whether they actually do so.

This is all very encouraging, especially because all the ultra-Orthodox parties are united for the first time—in the opposition. This law may actually pass without substantial changes. Responses from ultra-Orthodox rabbis to members of their community show that they are worried, and many state explicitly that they may have to shut down yeshivas. The rabbis’ responses show how attuned they and their communities are to economic and financial pressures, but market forces may not be enough to change the situation. The ultra-Orthodox have shown repeatedly that their leaders will organize their communities to stand their ground on issues like public Sabbath observance and depictions of women in advertisements. Fractured as they are, ultra-Orthodox groups almost always come together when facing external pressures. Furthermore, adults who have not learned basic mathematical and other skills will struggle to enter the economy.

It is clear that most Israelis are fed up with the Israeli ultra-Orthodox taking as many state resources as they can grab, without giving any back by working or doing military or national service, in order to subsidize year-round Talmud study. Let’s hope this is a tangible first step.