Religious schools may strike over cuts

Devout MKs promise to fight for increase in budget for Jewish studies.

jew student 298.88 (photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
jew student 298.88
(photo credit: Ariel Jerozolimski)
Hundreds of national religious junior high and high schools with tens of thousands of students are threatening to strike after Hanukka vacation in protest against an education budget cut. Elchanan Glatt, executive director of Bnei Akiva yeshivot and girls' schools, who is leading the fight against the budget cuts, said students in grades seven through 12 would not return to school after the eight-day Hanukka holiday unless the government increased the budget. Schools that are affected include Bnei Akiva yeshiva high schools, the Noam and Tzvia school chains, Or Torah Stone and other junior high and high schools belonging to the national religious school network. Haredi "yeshivot katanot," the equivalent of junior high and high schools, will also be hurt by cuts. But so far haredi leaders have not voiced opposition. Glatt said he attempted to create a united front together with haredi MKs against the cut. But the unnamed haredi MKs turned him down, said Glatt. "It's as if the government has a vendetta against religious students," said Glatt, who admitted that no government official has explicitly endorsed discrimination against religious schools. "But their actions speak for themselves," said Glatt. "It is such a shame because our students are the best, most ideologically motivated citizens. They are the ones volunteering for combat units in the IDF and for national service." Glatt blamed the Finance Ministry for cutting the Jewish Studies Enrichment budget - a term for government funding for prayer time, Torah lessons and other Jewish culture - from NIS 285 million in 2002 to just NIS 150m. in the 2007 budget. But the Finance Ministry rejected Glatt's claim that the budget for religious junior high and high schools was NIS 285m. in 2002. "It is impossible to determine the precise amount of support to religious students under the age of 18 since it was part of a larger budget for all yeshiva and kollel students," said the Treasury spokesperson in a written rebuttal. "Therefore, the NIS 285m. estimate is inaccurate." The Treasury said the 2007 budget for Jewish studies in junior high and high schools was NIS 154m. In previous years, the National Religious Party and National Union struck coalition deals that added between NIS 40m. and NIS 50m. to the budget. But this year neither party is a coalition member. An Attorney-General's Office directive ruled that it was unlawful to fund religious education via both the Education Ministry and [the now defunct] Religious Affairs Ministry. Therefore, the entire budget for Jewish studies was transferred to the Education Ministry, said the Treasury spokesperson. "Egalitarian criteria determined which schools would receive funding for Jewish Studies Enrichment and how much they would receive," said the spokesperson. "The funding was not restricted solely to yeshivot and religious girls' schools. Rather any school that offered enriched Jewish study programs was eligible." Glatt concurred with the Treasury that as part of the budget cuts, new criteria were introduced that allowed secular schools with Jewish studies to be eligible for government funding, which meant more slices taken from a smaller pie. "I am all for more Judaism in secular schools," said Glatt. "But there should be a corresponding rise in funding, not a cut." Religious Zionist MKs in the National Union-National Religious Party and in Kadima have agreed to help fight the cuts. MK Zevulun Orlev said the cuts in Jewish studies were unbearable for parents who were already paying to supplement skimpy education budgets. "The strike is completely justified considering the extent of the cuts," said Orlev. "I'm surprised high yeshiva heads have waited this long." MK Otniel Schneller (Kadima), a religious Zionist and former Yesha Council member, blamed Education Minister Yuli Tamir for politicization of public education. "Jewish identity is the only thing that will keep us together as a nation," said Schneller. "Anyone who does not understand this does not have a clue what he or she is doing here in Israel."