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Israel’s new education minister announces ‘main task’ is to increase ultra-Orthodox education budget

Young students in the classroom at the opening of the new school year in a school for ultra-Orthodox Jewish boys, in Beit Shemesh, Aug. 28, 2022. (Photo: Yonatan Sindel/Flash90)

Israeli Minister of Education and Minister of Regional Cooperation Yoav Kisch said this week that increasing the budgets of the ultra-Orthodox educational institutions in Israel will now be the Education Ministry’s “main task.” 

“There may be other key tasks but this is one of the most meaningful central tasks in the current budget,” Kisch said.

Yoav Kisch is a Knesset member representing Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and was first elected to the Knesset in 2015.

Kisch made his statement at a hearing on Tuesday, joined by 170 Israeli mayors and heads of local authorities, who are opposed to the proposed budget increases for informal education institutions in the ultra-Orthodox sector. Kisch made it clear that the shortage in funding will have to be covered on the municipal level.

“There are gaps [in funding] that mayors will have to close. This issue will come to this committee and we will have to find a solution for it,” he said. 

The leader of the ultra-Orthodox United Torah Judaism party, Moshe Gafni, spoke at the hearing, saying, “Orthodox education is not private education.” 

“I want us to come to an agreement, on all issues. I don’t want me to be on one side and you on the other,” said Gafni whose party constitutes part of Netanyahu’s governing coalition.  

Several mayors voiced their opposition to Kisch’s comments, including Modi'in Mayor Haim Bibas, who serves as chairman of the Federation of Local Authorities and is a member of Netanyahu's Likud party. Bibas publicly opposed the prospected funding from the municipal level instead of the state budget.

“Some local authorities already can’t support themselves, and this will subtract from their budgets,” he said. “If we don’t do [education equality] broadly, we will inflict damage for which we will have to bear the responsibility.” 

In this, Bibas was referring to the proposed recommendations which leave out or neglect independent Arab educational institutions. 

Israel’s former Minister of Finance Avigdor Liberman, a staunch critic of Israel’s ultra-Orthodox segments, likewise opposed the proposed funding.

“Equal opportunity for every child means, first and foremost, core curriculum. That’s learning math, English and computers. Where will the money come from?” Liberman asked. “Those who prevent equal opportunity are the same people who put them into education systems where there’s no core curriculum.”

In order to meet the demands of the coalition partners – because he needed to form his parliament majority after the November elections – Netanyahu made a host of promises to the ultra-Orthodox sector, including increasing government funding for their educational institutions without the requirement of teaching core curriculum. 

According to Liberman, as reported by The New York Times on Jan. 9, “the cost of all of the additional promised funding for Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] causes would come to an estimated 20 billion shekels (about $5.7 billion) a year and constituted ‘an attempt to collapse the Israeli economy.’”

Netanyahu also promised to make Torah study a “national value,” similar to that of military service, something that will have to be passed as a law. He said he will prepare a law that formalizes the arrangement whereby yeshiva students studying Torah are exempt from being drafted in the Israeli Defense Forces. 

“It’s very clear that the Haredi [ultra-Orthodox] leadership that sewed up these agreements is going for strengthening the Haredi autonomy and not integration,” said Professor Yedidia Stern, president of the Jewish People Policy Institute.

A quarter of all Jewish children in the Israeli school system are now from the ultra-Orthodox population segment and most of the ultra-Orthodox schools are centered around Torah study, rather than on the secular subjects of math, science, computers and languages. 

“When the Haredim were a small group, that was OK. Now it’s impossible. To allow this to go on, despite the large numbers of Haredim, means the country won’t be able to function,” Stern said.

The All Israel News Staff is a team of journalists in Israel.

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