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Knesset panel okays Haredi education funds, gives limited nod to Arab towns’ budget

The Knesset Finance Committee on Tuesday okayed hundreds of millions of shekels for various ultra-Orthodox educational initiatives, amid angry criticism from the opposition that coalition lawmakers were funneling money to their interests and depleting resources from other communities.

The committee also approved the eventual transfer of NIS 200 million ($52 million) to Arab-majority towns and cities, though this will wait for the implementation of an oversight mechanism, sparking charges of discrimination from Arab lawmakers.

Lawmakers gave the green light to move NIS 420 million ($110 million) into various educational programs related to the Haredi community, some of it for schools that are not required to include core curriculum subjects such as math, English and science.

Millions of shekels will go to school systems run by institutions represented by the United Torah Judaism and Shas political parties, both of which are part of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s coalition. The earmarks also include money for programs that take in Haredi draft dodgers, yeshiva students coming from outside Israel, and dropouts from Haredi schools, according to a Knesset statement.

Some NIS 155 million ($40 million) of the package is not part of the already-approved state budget, and will instead come from the Education Ministry budget for building new classrooms, though the head of the committee and a treasury official claimed that the money was actually part of a budget reserve meant for fulfilling coalition agreements.

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Committee chair MK Moshe Gafni, of UTJ, claimed that the funds were not transferred from anywhere “positive.”

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)

“These are coalition funds that were taken from reserves. I checked the matter and it is clear that it is part of an agreement that should have been carried out already 8-9 months ago. There was a need to approve it with the attorney general, and it is taken from the same reserves,” he said.

Labor MK Gilad Kariv tweeted that the transfer by the government was an “attack on the liberal community in Israel.”

The coalition’s budget had already included unprecedented billions 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, building religious buildings, and supporting Haredi Jewish culture and identity.

Earlier this month, the committee approved a budget transfer of NIS 736 million ($193 million) from across government ministries, some NIS 480 million ($126 million) of which will be transferred to Haredi education.

Those funds came from an across-the-board cut to government agencies and public services. Among the affected budgets were a NIS 327,000 ($85,000) cut to funds assisting Holocaust survivors, an NIS 22 million ($5.8 million) cut to childcare subsidies, an NIS 18 million ($4.7 million) cut to disabled care, and a NIS 32 million ($8.4 million) cut to Education Ministry auxiliary resources.

Hadash-Ta’al MK Aida Touma-Sliman speaks at a Knesset Finance Committee meeting on the approval of budgetary transfers in the education system, at the Knesset, in Jerusalem, September 26, 2023. (Chaim Goldberg/Flash90)

Finance Minister Bezalel Smotrich had been holding up the transfer of funds for the Arab municipal authorities for several months, claiming that the money was being used to fund organized crime.

He eventually acceded to pressure, including from the Shin Bet security service and Netanyahu, on the condition that a monitoring system be set up.

Smotrich’s representative in the committee, Omer Rahamim, said the money would only go through once the screening system was in place.

MK Aida Touma-Sliman, from the Arab-majority Hadash-Ta’al party, complained at the committee meeting that it was a ploy to further delay the money, which is earmarked for education, welfare and construction,

Hadash-Ta’al MK Ahmad Tibi noted that Druze authorities were also plagued by crime but did not face a halt in their funding.

“Nobody has any desire to halt the money for the Arab authorities, especially not the finance minister. There is a consensus that we want to reduce crime in the Arab community, and there may be disagreements about the method for doing it,” Rahamim said in response.