Controversial kollel stipend bill likely to fall

Bill which aims to circumvent Supreme Court ruling that ended funding for full-time students of Torah set to be discussed in legislative c'tee; United Torah Judaism threatens to quit the coalition if stipends don't pass.

By GIL STERN STERN HOFFMAN,
October 23, 2010 21:57
3 minute read.
Illustrative photo - Yeshiva students study

young haredis studying 311. (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)

The Ministerial Committee on Legislation is expected to vote down a controversial bill on Sunday that would reinstate stipends for men who study Torah full-time, due to opposition from Labor, Likud, and Israel Beiteinu ministers.

United Torah Judaism threatened to quit the coalition if the stipends did not pass by the end of the year. Finance Minister Yuval Steinitz met with Shas chairman Eli Yishai and Knesset Finance Committee chairman Moshe Gafni (United Torah Judaism) late Saturday night to discuss the bill.

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The proposal, sponsored by haredi and religious-Zionist MKs, proposes giving scholarships to kollel students with at least three children and no other source of income. Other conditions for receiving a stipend are that the student not own land or a car, and that his wife not work, either.

"The purpose of this law is to anchor the right of kollel students to receive stipends and establish unified rules for granting them," the bill reads. "The state sees a great importance in encouraging Torah study, which is a central value in the life of the Jewish people. Therefore, we propose allowing a modest stipend for kollel students that have chosen to follow this path."

The bill would circumvent the Supreme Court¹s mid-June ruling that put an end to income guarantees for yeshiva students. At the time, the Supreme Court said that such guarantees were discriminatory, because they were not given to university students, as well.

The court ruled that they can not be included in the 2011 state budget. The proposed bill points out that the state¹s budget allows for NIS 450 million in aid for university students, and only NIS 121 million for kollel students.

In the explanatory section of the bill, the sponsors wrote: "The voice of Torah was not silenced even in the darkest periods in Jewish history, and much of the public sees Torah learning in kollels as promoting the essence of the Jewish people's existence and the guarantee of their eternal continuity."

Education Minister Gideon Saar called the bill "bad for Israel and its economy." He said dialogue was needed with the haredim to reach a proposal that would be more fair.

Agriculture Minister Shalom Simhon, who chairs Labor's Knesset faction, said Labor's representatives on the legislation committee would oppose the bill because it would put an unjustified burden on the state's coffers.

Labor leadership candidates Isaac Herzog and Avishay Braverman condemned the bill, with Herzog saying it would harm efforts to bring haredim into the work force and Braverman warning that passing the bill would be tantamount to spitting in the faces of the country's university students.

Kadima released a statement saying that the bill would serve as a test for Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu.

"He will have to prove whether his political survival is more important to him than the High Court," a Kadima spokesman said. "In a democratic country, the courts rule and governments abide by the courts' decisions. If Netanyahu bypasses the High Court, he will be bypassing democracy and making a mockery of the public."

An official in the Prime Minister's Office responded that the bill does not bypass the high court and merely legislates an arrangement that has been going on for 20 years, which he court requested be set in law.

Gafni's spokesman Yerach Tucker said the bill's opponents were hypocrites. He said the bill would not add a shekel to the state budget and that every government paid the stipends, including when Kadima was in charge.

Coalition chairman Ze'ev Elkin said he believed that the bill would fall and that an arrangement could then be reached with the haredim that could allow equality for college and kollel students.

Jonah Mandel contributed to this report


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