Analysis: The exploding civil servant

By blowing his top after years of provocation, a Quixotic defender of the public purse may have played into his critics' hands.

mk cohen dehartuch 298.8 (photo credit: Courtesy )
mk cohen dehartuch 298.8
(photo credit: Courtesy )
Attorney Amnon Dehartuch's friends and colleagues were astonished by his violent outburst at the Knesset on Tuesday. "I can't believe it," said one of them. "He's the quintessential civil servant. Politicians have tried to provoke him so many times in the past and he's always kept calm." But Dehartuch was so incensed over being called "worse than the Germans" by MK Ya'acov Cohen that even after the slapping he insisted for hours he would apologize only if Cohen would too. As inexcusable as the physical assault of an MK by a government official is, for Dehartuch this was the culmination of years of vicious vilification he has been forced to undergo from the ultra-Orthodox media and politicians for simply doing his job. It's hard to imagine a more thankless public position than being in charge of verifying the legality of all budget allocations. In a joking reference to his family origins, Dehartuch has been likened to the little Dutch boy with his finger in the dike, trying to stop the flow of hundreds of millions of shekels to special interests. Despite enjoying the support of the past three attorneys-general, especially the incumbent Menahem Mazuz, and having the power to block any allocation he deems illegal, Dehartuch's job is far from glamorous. With a skeleton staff of a couple of assistants with whom he shares his room in the Justice Ministry, Dehartuch has been waging a Quixotic campaign in defense of the public purse, usually to the displeasure of his political masters - including the justice ministers, who often see him as a nuisance hindering the regular business of government. Budget allocations for special interests became big business starting in 1977 when the haredi parties first entered the Likud coalition. This was the chance to rectify decades of inequality of funding for their education system and yeshivas. Since almost all haredi institutions existed outside the regular educational framework, in each annual budget they were awarded "exclusive money" to cover each school's and yeshiva's costs. A series of Supreme Court rulings from the mid-1980s to the early '90s made the "exclusive money" system illegal. In its stead came the "criterion," tailor-made requirements that allowed the continued funding of the ultra-Orthodox system. The size of the allocations is always the result of annual haggling, on the eve of the Knesset budget, between the government of the day and the haredi parties, and is the most reliable index of their current political power. This system has also come under fire in Supreme Court petitions, usually by non-Orthodox groups such as the Reform movement. Its chronic abuse has been highlighted in media exposure and criminal investigations. Over the last decade, Dehartuch has been in charge of making sure that every organization that receives allocations actually confirms to the "criterion" requirements, and in many cases also deciding whether those requirements are even legal. The meticulous way in which he has conducted himself has made him the arch-enemy of the haredi establishment. The "Germans" slur on Tuesday might have been a new low point, but in the past he has been compared to just about every other historical enemy of the Jewish people, including Pharaoh, Haman and Antiokhus. He has been accused of having a pathological hatred of Judaism and of pursuing an ideological against the haredi community. These accusations have been repeated time and again in the Haredi newspapers, including on the day of the Knesset incident, and have been said to his face by UTJ and Shas MKs in previous committee meetings. The latest altercation was over Dehartuch's decision to block allocations to haredi schools that, in his opinion, had failed to teach subjects included in the Education Ministry's core requirement. But his actions over the years have not been directed only at the haredim. In the past he has blocked allocations to the HaBimah national theater, a symbol of secular culture, claiming that a "criterion" had illegally been tailored for its benefit. Over the last few months he has blocked funding for the Joint Conversion Institute, an organization that is anathema to the haredi community since it includes in its faculty Reform and Conservative teachers. Last year he threatened to cancel allocations to one of the most cherished institutes of the national religious community, to which he himself belongs, the pre-army academies, for the lack of proper budgetary requirements. "I have nothing against yeshivas getting money," Dehartuch, a hesder yeshiva graduate, has repeatedly said over the years, "but they just have to get their act together and work within the law." These protestations have failed to convince the haredi politicians who continue to see him as their implacable enemy. They complain that since their schools are outside the national educational system, the haredi children receive far less funding than their counterparts and that the allocations are simply a remedy to an inherent inequality. Secular politicians dislike him too, as his nitpicking limits their ability to build coalitions and close deals. By blowing his top and slapping Cohen, Dehartuch might have just handed them his head on a platter. His career now depends on the backing he's going to get from his embattled friend and boss, Mazuz. Meanwhile, he probably wasn't very sad to hear of the instant sentence meted out by the Knesset - permanent disbarment from the building.