Torah Scholar Stipends: On Hold

The latest hot domestic political issue is on hold: Ministerial committee will draft a compromise proposal regarding “stipends for Torah scholars.”

Hillel Fendel , | updated: 10:33

Fin. Min. Steinitz and MK Gafni
Fin. Min. Steinitz and MK Gafni

The hot domestic political issue of the day has been put on hold: A ministerial committee will draft a compromise proposal regarding “stipends for Torah scholars.”

The controversy involves a Knesset response to a recent Supreme Court outlawing of a decades-old arrangement under which the government provides stipends to Kollel students. A proposal to reinstate the stipends was to have been voted on Sunday by the ministerial legislation committee, but has now been postponed.

Background: The Knesset Labor Committee stipulated, 28 years ago, that while the unemployed would receive a stipend of 40 percent of the average national salary, a kollel student – a married man whose days are spent in the study of Torah – would receive only 20 percent, and even that only under certain conditions: he must have at least three children, a wife who does not work, and no car. 

However, the Supreme Court ruled this past June, by a 6-1 margin, that the clause violates the principle according to which government stipends must be distributed equally.

Dissenting justice Edmond Levy said that Israel’s Parliament and Government decided that Torah study, a commandment rooted in Biblical Law, should be subsidized by the Jewish State. He said that the distinction made in this clause between university students and kollel students is based on “relevant variance,” and that even if the principle of equality is not sustained, the harm caused is not disproportionate.

The majority opinion, written by Chief Justice Dorit Beinisch, stated that the law specifically precludes minimum-income stipends to students in universities, colleges and yeshivot, and that therefore kollel students must also be included in this category.

MK Menachem Moses (United Torah Judaism) explained at the time why Beinisch's comparison was faulty “This was an arrangement that was rooted in law and regulations for decades, and was agreed upon in the Knesset," he said. "The Supreme Court’s intervention in legislation goes too far. It is ridiculous to depict a Kollel student receiving a tiny stipend - and only on condition that he has three children, no car, etc. - as if he is stealing from the public coffers, when the cost of a university student to the State of Israel is at least ten times more.”

Current Proposal and its Compromise Adjustment
The current proposal, submitted by MK Moshe Gafni (UTJ), would reinstate the stipends, according to the standards that have been in place until now. Following days of intensive talks between hareidi-religious MKs and representatives of the Finance Ministry and Prime Minister’s Bureau, however, the proposal will not be voted on today in the ministerial committee. Instead, it will be discussed in a smaller committee that will formulate a compromise proposal.

The compromise at hand would render university students who fulfill the same conditions – no car, three children, etc. – eligible for the stipends. 

Kadima Attacks
The Kadima Party, which leads the Opposition, has attacked Prime Minister Netanyahu for “caving in” to his hareidi-religious coalition partners’ demands. 

“In a democratic country,” a Kadima statement noted, “the Supreme Court rules and the government executes these decisions. The Netanyahu government has already sacrificed the entire national budget for its own survival, and it must not sacrifice the Supreme Court as well for its own stability… If Netanyahu circumvents the Court, he is circumventing democracy.”

Kadima’s position stands in opposition to that of many other experts on democracy. Knesset Speaker Ruby Rivlin, for instance, implied eight months ago that the Supreme Court’s overturning of Knesset legislation is a danger to democracy. He called at the time for Knesset legislation that would deal in a blanket matter with this phenomenon. The case at the time involved the Court’s nullification of a law allowing for the extension of a security suspect detainee’s custody not in his presence.