Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman, also chairman of the most vehemently anti-religious Israel Beiteinu party, announced on Monday his plan to slash NIS 400 million ($120 million) from the state budget for yeshivas, admitting shamelessly that he wants to punish religious education because the Haredi and Religious Zionism parties reject the current government: “It is impossible to act against the coalition and at the same time receive coalition money,” he announced, adding with great disdain: “The yeshivas’ budget goes to support idle learning, not holy learning. We’re going to fight it.”
It should be noted that Liberman’s tirade, although quite ugly in its raw hatred for religious Jews, especially the Haredim (it should be noted that Liberman’s wife is religious, so you figure it out – DI), was not against regular funding for yeshivas through the education budget, but instead against funding through an extra-budgetary slush fund known as “coalition money.” Before an annual budget is finalized, every coalition MK files his or her request for this extra money that they plan to spend on their favorite sector – their voters.
In October 2021, the Knesset approved NIS 2.1 billion ($630 million) in coalition money, plus NIS 286 million ($85 million) to individual MKs and a special fund for the Yamina party for Torah institutions, to the tune of NIS 452 million ($135 million).
Minister Liberman may be justified in arguing that the yeshivas, whose secure government budget stands at NIS 24 million ($7.2 million), can’t both attack the current coalition and stand in line, hat in hand, to collect those extra-budgetary funds. “You can’t hold the stick from both ends,” he said. But his all-out attack on Torah institutions was unprecedented from a senior government minister. The last major government official to attack so harshly an entire segment of the nation was the late Prime Minister Yitzhak Rabin who compared the setters to a cancer.
“When I look at where the coalition money is going,” Liberman said, “Most of the money goes to some kollels where people sit until retirement age, eat a sandwich, talk about politics, eat, study a page of gemora and then go home. There’s no reason to fund them.”
He then attacked Haredi yeshivas that refuse to teach core curriculum subjects such as Math and English. Those numbers are shrinking, according to reports, as the Education Ministry has been negotiating separately with each Chassidic dynasty (Most recently Belz) on how to augment their study program, but Liberman, who has a BA in International Relations from Hebrew University, attacked anyway: “There’s no contradiction between core curriculum studies and the Torah of Israel and Halakha and there’s no reason for us to continue to transfer the coalition funds while they are working to overthrow the government,” he declared.
Actually, it’s all in the execution. If the core curricular material is written in a language that’s offensive to Haredim or uses illustrations that are offensive to their faith and lifestyle, there might be a lot there that contradicts their view of the Torah.
“I hope that my friends in the government will embrace this decision,” Liberman added. And by “friends” Liberman means Yamina, especially MK Nir Orbach, who asked for NIS 50 million ($15 million) for a variety of good purposes, including Torah institutions. MK Idit Silman received NIS 35 million ($10 million) for “Jewish culture.” And, as I mentioned above, the Yamina party received NIS 452 million ($135 million) for Torah institutions. These are the “friends” Liberman knifed in the back on Monday.
Incidentally, as budgetary allocations go, the coalition money is not a form of corruption: every penny is counted and those pennies go to incredibly worthy causes. Chairman of the finance committee, MK Alex Kushnir from Liberman’s Israel Beiteinu, managed to obtain NIS 7 million ($2.1 million) for extra beds for recovering drug addicts. Meretz MK Ghaida Rinawie Zoabi obtained NIS 5 million ($1.5 million) for scholarships for Arab students. New Hope MK and former Eilat Mayor Meir Yitzhak Halevi obtained NIS 2 million ($600,000) for transportation from Ben Gurion Airport to Gush Dan for Eilat residents. The very long list includes funds for hospital emergency rooms for victims of sexual assault, support for bereaved families, access to information for Russian speakers, support for student villages and youth movements, encouraging settlement in the Gaza Strip Envelope communities, and about NIS 12 million ($3.6 million) for spaying stray cats, an expense that the Haredi parties scoffed at, even though they approved similar sums for spaying cats when they were in the Netanyahu government.
How ironic would it be if the Haredi yeshivas had to manage without when the stray cats would receive modern medical treatment, after which they too would have to manage without…