High Court blocks Liberman crackdown on haredi subsidies until next year

The justices did uphold Liberman’s authority to make the reform but required him to give the families more advance notice to plan for the rules and budget changes.

 Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman defends the budget in a Knesset address. (photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)
Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman defends the budget in a Knesset address.
(photo credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

The High Court of Justice blocked Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman’s crackdown on certain haredi (ultra-Orthodox) subsidies until the next school year.

The justices did, however, uphold his authority to make the reform, but required him to give the families more advance notice to plan for the rules and budget changes.

“We are saddened by the High Court’s decision regarding [against] reforming the criteria for receiving subsidies for child care, which currently penalize the citizens of Israel who serve in the IDF, members of the workforce, and taxpayers,” Liberman said in response to Wednesday’s ruling. “We will continue to act with all authorities to integrate all of the state’s citizens into the workforce.”

Economy Minister Orna Barbivai said that the government would remain committed to incentivizing work despite the delay caused by the ruling, but would eventually enact the reforms for the next school year as permitted by the High Court.

UTJ Chairman Yaakov Litzman said he was pleased “that even the High Court justices understood that Liberman’s evil actions against the children of Yeshiva students are improper and must be rejected. We will continue to fight for social benefits for children, and by next year we will succeed in causing this brazen and bad government to fall.”

 Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM) Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman (credit: MARC ISRAEL SELLEM)

Shas issued a statement saying, “The praiseworthy decision of the High Court to annul the decree for childcare for this year constitutes a sign of moral depravity for this government, and additional evidence regarding the arbitrary and abusive treatment of Finance Minister Liberman of the wives of yeshiva students.”

There were several members of the coalition itself that supported the High Court ruling, and by implication, criticized Liberman’s stance on the issue, including Coalition Chairwoman and Yamina MK Idit Silman and Meretz MK Mossi Raz.

In November, an interim conditional order by justices Uzi Vogelman, Ofer Grosskopf and Alex Stein told the state that it needed to explain on what basis it had the authority to change the rules regarding subsidies for haredi child care after the school year had already started.

According to Liberman’s decision, haredi families where the husband-father learns in a kollel-yeshiva context past a certain point but is not part of the workforce are not eligible for certain subsidies for childcare under age three.

The policy change would still provide subsidies for Israelis with children studying for university degrees.Multiple lawyers and haredi organizations had filed petitions against the policy shift as discriminatory against haredim.

A lawyer for the state attorney gave several arguments at the November hearing to support the decision made by both Liberman and Barbivai.

She noted that the justices themselves had said that there is no formal right for any citizen to receive subsidies. She further argued that the policy change was formally announced in mid-August, more than a week before the standard school year starting date of September 1, and around 10 days after the earlier haredi school year and early childcare starting date.

In other words, if the haredi school year had started earlier than the rest of the schools, it was still near the start of their year and not actually in the middle of the year, months later.

In addition, the state lawyer said at the November hearing that when the new government formed in mid-June, it was quite vocal from the start about its intent to change the subsidy policy to try to encourage haredi men to join the workforce.

“Everyone knew this was a burning issue, and everyone knew there would be a change,” she said.Furthermore, the state attorney said that widely covered public debates were held about the policy shift in July.

All of this led the state to conclude that no haredi parents would have actually been surprised by the policy change, even if the early haredi school year started 10 days before the change went into effect.

Moreover, the state said that there are not enough state-overseen and subsidized childcare centers for children under three for everyone, and many parents of all backgrounds end up sending their younger children to other more informal and non-state supervised contexts.

She said that a characteristic of state-supervised childcare is an element of uncertainty about subsidies each year, and that no one is entitled to perpetual subsidies just because they received them the year before.

But the justices were not convinced, with Grosskopf and Stein saying that current subsidy levels would remain until the end of the school year.

Vogelman also viewed Liberman’s move as invalid, but would have given the government 30 days to reassess the issue in a more orderly and balanced manner.

Striking back at the state’s arguments, Yonatan Feldman, one of the lawyers for the haredi families, said at the November hearing that Liberman was engaging in “cultural discrimination” against haredim.

Feldman said that even if there was no entitlement to subsidies, once the state decided to give subsidies to anyone, it could not arbitrarily discriminate.

The justices responded to Feldman that the state said its distinction of providing subsidies to university students as opposed to yeshiva students above a certain age was not discriminatory, because there was proven data that university students were more likely to find jobs in the workforce and to earn more.

The justices said it was problematic that yeshiva programs have not set a term of years to graduate and could go on endlessly, whereas university programs had a clear endpoint for study – and by extension, for the childcare subsidies.

Feldman said that in that case, the solution would be to ask the haredi yeshiva programs to give a set number of years in which yeshiva students could receive subsidies, but that this was something that should be well-planned at least a year in advance and not suddenly tossed out.

Another lawyer for the haredim, Shmuel Machleb, made an emotional appeal to the justices, saying “20,000 normative families will face disaster” if the policy is implemented.

He said the most likely real-world result would be that childcare would become too expensive, and many haredi women who had joined the workforce would quit their jobs to stay home and handle childcare duties.