PM to present new haredi stipend, national service plan

Ami Ayalon: If haredim can still dodge army, nat'l service at age of 22, proposal is problematic; PMO: "Difficult to understand bill's opponents."

By JONAH MANDEL, JERUSALEM POST STAFF
December 19, 2010 10:31
Netanyahu speaks in Tel Aviv, Monday.

Netanyahu tilting head 311 GPO. (photo credit: GPO)

Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu will present the cabinet on Sunday with two plans he hopes will increase haredi participation in the workforce by gradually limiting government funding of kollel students and encouraging civilian service among the ultra-Orthodox.

About 11,000 kollel students receive funding.

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Former Labor minister and security services head Ami Ayalon Sunday morning told Army Radio that he had "not seen the government decision [on kollel stipends], but that if haredim can [choose to] not serve in the army and not do national service at the age of 22, then i think it is a very problematic proposal."

Prime Minister's Office Communications Director Nir Hefetz rejected criticism of the Yeshiva Stipends reforms slated to be discussed in the cabinet, in an interview to Army Radio on Sunday.

"I cannot understand the opposition [to the reforms]," Hefetz told Army Radio. Under the plan, benefits would be slashed and limited to five years. However, it was announced Sunday that the reforms would only apply to 10 percent of yeshiva students, according to Army Radio.

The High Court of Justice ruled in June that the government cannot continue paying stipends solely to haredim who study full time, while other populaces such as university students are not eligible.



An interministerial committee headed by Prime Minister’s Office director-general Eyal Gabai was formed to find a way to accommodate thecourt’s ruling, and on Friday the PM’s Office jubilantly announced that after some 30 years, “the allowances to kollel students will be significantly limited. At the same time, scholarship funds for needy university students will be doubled,” by the addition of NIS 50 million.

If approved, the new policies will be implemented in five years.

Kollel students will be eligible for the support for only five years, and the number of those who can receive the allowance for an unlimited period – “constant learners” – will be restricted to an estimated 2,000, according to the proposal that will be voted on by the ministers on Sunday.

Backing for kollel students will be limited to NIS 127m. per year. Some will receive the aid for five years – NIS 1,040 in the first four years, and 75 percent of that sum in the fifth year.

During that year, the students will be able to work half-days and study during the other half of the day, and will be expected to be fully employed by the end of the year.

Industry, Trade and Labor Minister Binyamin Ben-Eliezer (Labor) , who is actively encouraging employment among haredim, said on Friday that the proposal would perpetuate the lack of haredi integration into the workforce, as well as poverty and unemployment in the sector.

“The plan is a regression from the initial draft proposed,” he said. “In the next five years there will be no progress, and the allotments aren’t set to be conditioned on vocational training.

And yeshiva students aged 29 and over – who account for more than 90% of yeshiva students in the program – will be unemployed forever.”

On Friday, Kadima slammed Netanyahu, who the opposition party claimed was “again lying to the public.”

“The prime minister is evading his responsibilities and forfeiting the country’s values for his personal survival,” Kadima said in a statement. “The government’s proposal is entirely false. Netanyahu is deflecting his responsibilities to the next government, increasing haredi yeshiva student stipends to NIS 127m., increasing poverty in the haredi sector and further widening the rift between the students... Netanyahu should bring the decision for Knesset approval and not avoid public discussion.”

Netanyahu’s haredi coalition partners didn’t announce an intention to bolt from the coalition following the Gabai Committee recommendations.

United Torah Judaism chairman Menahem Eliezer Mozes issued a statement on Friday expressing hope “that in five years, Israel will have a different government that will cancel the edict, a more humane government that will understand what neediness and poverty are and enable the continuation of the world of Torah.”

Shas had no reaction.

The National Student Union, which filed the original petition against the kollel stipends 10 years ago and has held demonstrations around Israel over the past few months, credited their struggle with the “good results.”

“We think these are good recommendations that will increase solidarity in our society and make it a more egalitarian one,” union head Itzik Shmuli said in a statement. “At the same time, we expect them to be legislated in the Knesset to ensure their future implementation.”

Shmuli also praised Gabai for taking the students’ recommendations into account, “a refreshing change in the regime’s attitude to the student population.”

The cabinet will also be asked to vote on changes to the Tal Law, which regulates haredi enlistment to the army and civilian service. According to the the Gabai Committee’s recommendations, the number of haredim serving in both tracks will double to 4,800 by the year 2015, and the automatic exemption of 22-year-old kollel students from military service will be canceled.

Haredim who postpone their army service are currently prohibited from entering the workforce.

By increasing the number of haredim who serve in the IDF or in national service, the number of those who can legally seek employment would grow.

Hiddush – For Religious Freedom and Equality slammed the proposal.

In a letter it sent out to the cabinet ministers ahead of the vote, the organization said that the government is, for the first time ever, canceling the principle of a “people’s army” by granting a sweeping exemption to an entire sector, which may choose civilian service instead of the army. Gabai’s plan, the letter said, would harm the success of the various IDF tracks aimed at haredim, which have proven successful and grown over the years.

As for the proposals regarding the kollel stipends, Hiddush called them “written on ice,” since anything could happen in Israeli politics during the five years until they are implemented.

Hiddush called on the government to begin the cut within a year or 18 months, thus providing kollel students sufficient time to find jobs.


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