The haredi parties, Shas and United Torah Judaism, have threatened to leave the
coalition if their demands for extra subsidies for yeshiva and kollel students
are not authorized. The arguments on both sides are well known.
haredi parties argue that yeshiva students are discriminated against compared to
university students, and should be accorded equal status. The government argues
that university students, unlike most of their haredi counterparts, have served
for three years in the army, begin gainful employment when they finish their
studies and, with or without subsidies, have to pay tuition costs of NIS
10,000-12,000 per year.
Despite Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s
desire to maintain good relations with his haredi coalition partners, many of
his ministers, including Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar, have come out strongly
against the attempt to increase the yeshiva subsidies, as this will only
contribute to greater poverty within the rapidly growing haredi
And despite the threats to leave the coalition if the additional
funding is not authorized, the haredi parties will remain within the coalition,
if only because they are unable to give up the present levels of funding. Enough
or not enough, there has never been a situation where the haredim have enjoyed
such massive public funding for their yeshivot.
But there are also many
haredi leaders who are well aware of the urgent need for longterm yeshiva
students who only remain fulltime students because of social pressure rather
than a real desire to devote their lives to Torah, to be given an opportunity to
enter the labor market.
TO THAT end, there has been a move toward setting
up training programs and even degree courses aimed at the haredi
Vocational training within the haredi community has taken off
in a big way in recent years. The most notable institution is the Haredi College
in Jerusalem, which was set up and headed by Adina Bar-Shalom, daughter of Rabbi
Ovadia Yosef. Initially aimed at women, there is now a concerted attempt to
offer similar opportunities to the male population. The government has announced
its intention to support these educational projects, and to invest significant
resources, through the Council for Higher Education, as an alternative to
increasing subsidies for yeshivot.
Many spiritual leaders of the haredi
world see this move as a threat to their way of life.
In recent weeks
they have made a number of public statements against this trend. They became
particularly alarmed when advertisements for new study options began to appear
in their own papers, and have issued a statement condemning these media outlets
for not following a Torah-true way of life.
The number of people learning
full time in yeshivot has increased dramatically over the past two decades, as
has the haredi population.
Where large family size used to mean
six-to-eight children per family, this has now become 10-12, and even more. It
is difficult enough to provide food, clothing and schooling for such large
families even when the head of the household has gainful employment; it is
becoming virtually impossible when he is studying full time and has to rely on a
small stipend which the yeshiva or kollel is able to provide.
that the government provides much of this funding is something unique to the
State of Israel, and is not always appreciated by the haredi leaders in their
demand for even greater subsidization of the yeshivot.
yeshivot in the world today, such as Mir and Ponevezh in Israel, or Lakewood in
the US, have thousands of full-time students. This contrasts with the great
yeshivot of Eastern Europe before World War II, which had no more than a few
hundred of the best students even at their peak. These yeshivot created the
religious leaders and rabbis of the next generation. Despite all their
arguments, the haredi population, both here and in the Diaspora, have never had
it so good, and their attempts to portray the pre-war situation as being a world
in which everyone was pious and spent their lives in studying, with no poverty
or hunger, is false nostalgia.
THE ISSUE of vocational and professional
training is not an easy one for the universities to take on. They are requested
to create separate courses for the haredi population, in locations within the
community (Bnei Brak and Jerusalem) rather than on the campus itself for fear of
visual contamination, separate courses for men and women (until now it has
largely been for women) and only in specific areas of study, which will make a
clear contribution to their own communities.
Courses in computers,
accountancy and a variety of paramedical professions are the most popular, while
general courses in the humanities or social sciences, or in any area of study
which may raise questions concerning their own beliefs and way of life, are not
on the agenda.
Not all university heads are happy with these demands, as
they negate the principle of diversity. At the same time, they understand that
they can make an important contribution to the country’s economy by assisting in
the training of tens of thousands of people lacking anything but a yeshiva
education, to enter the job market.
The need to find gainful employment
has become an acute problem in the haredi world. If Shas and United Torah
Judaism really want to contribute to the well-being and further development of
their communities, they will support the government-sponsored educational and
vocational programs for their constituents, rather than insisting on expanding
the grants and stipends which keep them in poverty.
The writer is
professor of Political Geography at Ben-Gurion University and editor of
International Journal of Geopolitics.