``Not one alone has arisen against us to destroy us. Rather in each generation, there are those that rise up against us to destroy us."
When haredi Jews sit at the Seder table this coming Wednesday night and recite these words, they will be thinking not only of all those in the past who sought to wipe us out physically. Their thoughts will also be directed to the authors of the Israeli government’s economic recovery plan, the effect of which will be to cast hundreds of thousands of haredi Jews beneath the subsistence level.
One can sympathize with Finance Minister Binyamin Netanyahu’s stated goal to encourage more haredi men to enter the work force, and understand the resentment of the secular public to what they see as the haredi world’s failure to shoulder its share of the economic burden.
Yet the proposed cuts in child support allowances, coupled with the elimination of a large percentage of the budget of haredi educational institutions, are so drastic, so sudden, and so disproportionate to the budgetary cuts being imposed on other groups in society, as to belie any purely economic purpose. They are punitive in nature. They will destroy the entire haredi educational system, from elementary schools to kollels for married Torah scholars, and create widespread social dislocation in the haredi community.
Netanyahu proposes terminating all kollel stipends – currently about 700 shekels a month – for kollel students above 27 and halving them for students over 22. Those who raise funds for the kollels abroad realize that they cannot possibly replace the lost government funding, and as a result many kollels have already closed or announced that they will not reopen after Pesach.
Yet even the absence of paying kollels in which to learn and the drastic cuts in child support payments will not cause the kollel students to enter the work force. Not because they would not work, but because there are no jobs. More than a quarter million Israelis are already unemployed, including tens of thousands with training in fields like computer programming that haredi men would be most likely to enter.
Nothing in the Netanyahu plan offers either the hope of any jobs in the near future or training for jobs when they become available. What incentive is there, then, for a kollel student to give up the Torah learning he loves, spend money he does not have on a training course, if at the end of the process his chances of finding a job are virtually nil? The successful Clinton welfare reform took place in a boom economy in which jobs were plentiful. Israel’s current economic situation is just the opposite.
Moreover, the proposed cuts will crush haredi families even where one or both parents are already working. As of January 2002, a family with eight children under 18 received a child support allowance of 4,870 shekels per month. At the end of the graduated reductions proposed by the Finance Ministry, the same family will receive 1,182 shekels, a reduction of over 75%. Even in large haredi families in which the parents work -- most of those with eight children – the lost child allowances often represent a third to a half of the family budget.
The decision to focus cuts in social transfer payments so heavily on child allowances, rather than spreading out the cuts more generally or introducing some form of means testing, smacks of an effort to punish haredim for having too many children. As Evelyn Gordon has pointed out, the proposed level of child allowances are far below those of almost every other Western democracy.
Just as haredi families are hit with loss of a significant percentage of their income, they will find themselves confronting skyrocketing tuition costs in their educational institutions. While the entire educational system faces deep cuts, haredi educational institutions from elementary school on up are threatened with cuts that are truly draconian. Of the more than one billion shekels in the 2002 Religions Ministry budget for Torah institutions, approximately 80% has been cut from the new budget. Those cuts include hundreds of millions of shekels in basic operating budgets, as well as lost subsidies for kollel students and foreign students.
Hundreds of millions more will be slashed from the Educational Ministry budgets of elementary schools, Bais Yaakov seminaries, and yeshiva ketanos. Those cuts go far beyond the across-the-board reductions in the total educational budget. Five years ago, the Gavish-Bloomberg report recommended that the budget for Torah institutions be linked to the cost of living index. That recommendation was accepted by the government, but never implemented. As a consequence, the cuts in funding for Torah institutions began from a base far lower than it should have. In addition, because much of the budget for Torah institutions is listed as budgetary supplements and not part of the regular budget, it has been cut at a higher rate than the rest of the education budget.
New criterion proposed by the Education Ministry impose severe funding reductions for any school not following a mandatory secular curriculum involving 75% of teaching hours. That will cost yeshivos, which are already funded at lower per student rates, an additional 70 million shekels.
In addition, institutions with less than 100 students will no longer be eligible for funding. Every year ten or more new yeshiva ketanos open up in Jerusalem and Bnei Brak. Invariably they open with one class and grow over three years to approximately 100 students. They will either be prevented from opening or required to make awkward marriages with existing institutions.
Slashing the Torah educational budget represents a frontal assault on the fundamental institutions of haredi life. Impoverished haredi parents cannot possibly pay the steep tuition rises that would be required to keep their institutions functioning.
Even as haredi parents find themselves buffeted on all sides, they will be hit by other general budget cuts that will have a disproportionate impact on haredi families. Haredim, especially younger couples who have found cheaper housing in communities removed from the major population centers, are the heaviest users of public transportation. And they will be hard hit by the 5% increase in transportation costs.
What does this catastrophe mean in human terms for the haredi community? As a result in the enormous reductions in child allowances and educational budgets, tens of thousand haredi children will go to bed hungry at night and spend their days learning on empty stomachs. Talk of widespread starvation cannot be dismissed as fear-mongering.
My wife is a social worker in the haredi community working both with families in which there are children with learning disabilities and families in which there is childhood cancer. She witnesses daily the strains on parents and children caused by the tension in the house. Unbearable financial pressures will have similar effects, and rip apart tens of thousands of haredi families.
In the early days of the State, a deliberate effort was made to separate children of religious immigrants from Arab lands from their parents. In the absorption centers, children were housed in special children’s homes, and the study of Torah was forbidden. Parents who wanted to send their children to religious schools were threatened with the loss of their Histadrut work card, which in those days was a sentence of starvation.
More than fifty years later, Israeli society is still dealing with the results of the destruction of immigrant families. Those who rejoice today in the prospect of a total breakdown of haredi society would do well to keep in mind the results of the earlier efforts at social engineering.