Who Pays for Yeshiva Students?

Income assurance for yeshiva students at a cost of 111 million shekels has become a political hot potato.

Yeshiva 311 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Yeshiva 311
(photo credit: Courtesy)
THE SUMMER AND HOLIDAY seasons are over, and the Knesset is back in full swing. Given that the major piece of legislation over the next couple of months will be passage of the state budget for the next two years (the proposed budget passed a first reading on October 26), it is no surprise that Knesset members are making efforts to obtain as much as they can for their constituencies.
Many of those efforts are often done quietly, as members try to fold pet outlays into omnibus bills, where the full extent of what they are proposing gets lost deep inside the fine print of sub-articles.
One attempt by United Torah Judaism Knesset Member Moshe Gafni, however, has garnered headlines. Gafni’s bill, which came before the Ministerial Committee on Legislative Affairs in mid- October would grant yeshiva students hundreds of millions of shekels, essentially by restoring to them income assurance payments that were ordered halted by the Supreme Court during the summer. The bill was supported by Knesset Members from United Torah Judaism, Shas and National Union, but set off a storm by touching directly on a longstanding secular-religious rift, and even more particularly on the issue of direct tax-payer support for yeshiva students. Shas tried to calm matters by proposing that the income supplements also be extended to university students, before all factions agreed to delay discussing the matter for at least several weeks.
Cries of foul flew again only days later, when it was discovered that buried in the proposed state budget was a sum of 111 million shekels, set aside to pay for income assurance for yeshiva students. It is a good bet, however, that whatever the politicians decide, the issue will eventually come before the High Court again.
The scene was set by the High Court back in June, when it ruled on a petition brought before it by Jenny Baruchi, a single mother who complained about being denied welfare income assurance when she was enrolled in university studies, while yeshiva students routinely received such payments. A 1980 Knesset law forbade university students from enjoying income assurance, out of concern that students from middle- and upper-class backgrounds would use the payments as a convenient source of income while they were enrolled. Yeshiva students were explicitly exempted from this condition.
The High Court struck down this discriminatory practice. As is its wont, the court left it up to the Knesset to determine how to rectify the situation. Ending the eligibility of yeshiva students for the guarantees would mean about 11,000 yeshiva students would no longer receive an average of 1,040 shekels ($270) per month, which for many of them would be a significant reduction in their incomes.
Extending it to all students, on the other hand, would again raise the possibility of tens of thousands of students taking advantage of the income supplements, threatening the state budget with an extra liability of hundreds of millions of shekels.
Whatever action the Knesset chooses, a constitutional issue will likely arise. If Gafni’s bill is accepted as is, it would surely trigger a repeat petition to the court to strike it down, since it would just restore the same discrimination that the court already ruled unacceptable. If Shas’s proposed compromise, which would equalize eligibility terms for yeshiva students and university students is voted in, however, it might still be struck down by the court. This is because the terms limit eligibility to parents of at least three children. That would make most yeshiva students eligible, but shut out nearly all university students.
That would then raise the interesting question of when a law that is worded in ostensibly neutral and non-discriminatory language is discriminatory solely due to the fact that one sub-population but not another answers to its terms. The High Court has in the past invalidated executive orders that were too “over-tailored” to fit a particular population, but has never overruled a Knesset law on that basis.
The High Court’s ruling in June was precedent setting because it was based on an interpretation of a 1985 amendment to a Basic Law that sets the framework for the budget laws in Israel and has greater standing than a regular law, providing for contradictory provisions in the budget to be struck down. This means that the tug-of-war between the Knesset and the court over who ultimately has the last constitutional word is now explicitly taking place over questions at the heart of what has always been considered one of the most central of parliamentary prerogatives: determining the budget.
How that tug-of-war plays out, and to what extent the Knesset’s budgeting power is open to judicial review on the basis of fairness, transparency and consistency, among other considerations, may have major implications for the economy in the years ahead.