Analysis: No more special funds for special interests

Until Sunday, salary issues weren't important enough to cause "bitul Torah".

religious zionists 298.8 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
religious zionists 298.8
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
The state-religious schools strike on Sunday was hailed as the "first time ever" that the religious sector ever stopped teaching its children over a financial dispute. Ostensibly, it never took part in past teachers' strikes under the pretext that salary issues weren't important enough to cause "bitul Torah" (wasting time that could be devoted to Torah study). In reality, large sections of the state-religious education system always struck along with the secular schools, and it was the more exclusive yeshivot, ulpanot (girls' high schools) and more "Torani" streams that kept on teaching despite everything. This more elitist layer of the religious community, which, over the last decade, has taken over a majority of the high schools, are the reason for this strike. The leaders of the community are blaming the government for cutting its education budget but that doesn't mean that the religious students are receiving less than their secular counterparts. A complex formula determines the funding of every school in the state education system, according to the number of pupils, and there is no differentiation between regular secular (mamlachti) and state-religious (mamlachti-dati) schools. All of this funding comes from the Education Ministry budget. The difference between the two systems comes from decades of coalition deals in which the religious parties, mainly the National Religious Party (NRP), secured additional earmarked funds for Torah studies through the Religious Affairs Ministry and the Religious Education Directorate within the Education Ministry. Over the years, this allowed those religious schools with a higher level of Torah study and halachic observance, usually well-connected to rabbis and politicians, to add teaching hours, sometimes well into the evening, offer hot meals and special lessons in small groups. The religious schools were also able to hire more experienced teachers than those available to secular ones. The NRP argued that these funds were necessary in order to maintain a high level of both general and religious learning and to be able to compete with private haredi schools, which offered poor families hot meals and long school days while skimping on the general curriculum. Three and a half years ago, the Sharon government abolished the Religious Affairs Ministry as part of the coalition agreement with Shinui and its budgets were dispersed among the Education Ministry, Treasury and Prime Minister's Office. But ever since the NRP left the coalition two years ago in protest over disengagement, no party remained to safeguard the state-religious interests and so the funds were gradually reduced in every round of budget cuts. The cuts are yet another source of tension between the more religious and ideological core of the national religious public, already estranged by last year's disengagement which many saw as a secular attack on the mainly right-wing community, and secular Israelis. Since 1948, the community has seen the existence of religious schools within a wider state system as a matter of principle, but there are growing voices to opt out and set up a more independent education stream. There are already a small number of schools operating in this fashion. Most of the Zionist-religious stream still believes in a full partnership with the state system but demands that its special attributes continue to receive funding. As it is, parents are already shouldering a significant part of the burden. School fees at the religious schools are the highest in Israel, exceeding by far the limits set by the ministry, which turns a blind eye. The national religious leadership hoped that the "first-time" strike might have had some effect on the budget considerations but since they are now firmly in opposition, and at one of their politically weakest periods ever, it's going to take a lot more than a one-day strike to get those budgets back. The national-religious claims are the opposite of those being raised now by the haredi leaders. Their community has always stayed out of the national system, calling their schools "hinuch atzma'i" (independent education) and have to make do with only 50 percent to 60% of the funding of state schools. United Torah Judaism and Shas have repeatedly demanded that their children receive the same amount, regardless of the fact that their schools have remained outside Education Ministry supervision. There is even a bill being pushed by Shas minister Meshulam Nahari that mandates just this. Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has expressed some support for the bill, while Education Minister Yuli Tamir is adamant that it cannot pass, explaining that if it was to become law the state education system would become meaningless. The heads of local governments, through whose budget the schools are funded, are also opposed and, unlike Tamir, they have some real political clout with Olmert. All these demands are now coming to a head on the eve of the passage of the 2007 budget: political pressure, special interests and back-room dealing have created a very uneducational mixture.