Women's forum protests end to daycare subsidies for Torah scholars

"Politicians weren't elected to occupy government seats; they were elected to represent the values they claim to espouse."

Shimon Cohen ,

Forum members meeting with Yamina MK Nir Orbach
Forum members meeting with Yamina MK Nir Orbach
Toratan Umnatan

The “Toratan Umnatan” forum for the wives of Torah scholars is continuing to wage its battle against the Finance Minister in his determination to stop subsidizing daycare for families where the father is a full-time Torah student.

Finance Minister Avigdor Liberman has long made his anti-haredi stance a central feature of the platform of his party, Yisrael Beytenu, and the haredi community will be disproportionately affected by this new piece of legislation, although many Religious Zionist families will also be affected. If it is implemented – and so far, it seems that it will, in November – it will force changes on the families where the father is a full-time Torah scholar, with either the mother giving up her job to stay home with her children, or the father leaving his place of learning and either going out to work or taking a course of study in university – because Liberman’s proposal discriminates between Torah study and academic learning.

Naama Moshkovitz, one of the heads of the forum, described the efforts her group is making to have the law repealed.

“We established this forum in order to unite the wives of Torah scholars from the Religious-Zionist community and to make our voices heard,” she said. “We wanted to make sure people hear, loud and clear, that we will not accept [this decree]. What we’re trying to do is get Knesset members to stand up for the values they espouse and find an alternative solution, one that includes abolishing this decree, so that we can continue to raise our families and simultaneously build the next generation of Torah scholars.”

Moshkovitz notes that the forum has made contact with Knesset members from the Religious Zionism party, but stresses that the main focus of their efforts is directed at members of the Yamina party, whose head, Naftali Bennett, is currently prime minister. Forum members have met with Yamina MKs and described exactly what the ruling will mean for their families and thousands of others – and demanded that Yamina take steps to block its implementation.

So far, they have met with MKs Nir Orbach (who is in charge of negotiations with Liberman), Shirley Pinto, and Idit Silman. “They all expressed support for our position and claimed to identify with us and want to help us, and told us that they are already engaged in various efforts to do so – but so far, we haven’t heard of any achievements they’ve made,” Moshkovitz says. “Until we see changes on the ground, we will continue our fight, to the bitter end.”

Asked if she thinks Yamina MKs will bow to pressure from Liberman and other coalition members who support his position, Moshkovitz replies that she prefers not to consider that eventuality. “I don’t think they will give up – I think they are doing something, but the question is whether they are bringing their whole weight to bear on the issue. Are they prepared to fight for this to the end – to fight for the values which they claim to share? What we see are Avigdor Liberman,the Economy Minister, and MK Orna Barbivay from the secularist Yesh Atid party, making clear and definitive statements to the media – and we don’t see Yamina members doing anything even approaching that,” she notes.

Given that the Yamina party holds only six Knesset seats and many polls show it doing extremely badly in future elections, it is perhaps not surprising that Bennett and fellow party members are unwilling to risk the breakup of the coalition on this issue – but Moshkovitz insists that political calculations should take a backseat to ideological beliefs.

“If Torah learning is not a sufficiently important value in the eyes of the Yamina party, then they will have to answer for that,” she says. “They themselves claim that they value Torah study, so in that case, they should be standing up for it, in public. And if they fail to do so, the public will judge them accordingly. I’m no politician – all I want to do is give voice to our plight – but they have an obligation to find a solution. I can’t tell them what to do, but what I can do is remind them that the values they claim to uphold are important enough to fight for. They don’t have to let Liberman dictate the situation.”

Given that Liberman doesn’t seem to be planning on backing down, and that any attempt to distinguish between Torah scholars from the haredi community and those from the Religious-Zionist community will likely not withstand legal scrutiny, it does seem that essentially, what Moshkovitz is demanding is that Yamina be willing to dismantle the coalition over the issue.

“Knesset members don’t enter politics in order to obtain government positions,” she responds. “They’re supposed to be representing the values they were elected to uphold. If they can do that, then wonderful – and if they find themselves unable to promote their values and anchor them in law, then there’s a problem. But what I hope is that they find a way to lead the coalition and work together with their partners in government without sacrificing their values. What they must not do is sit back and allow the values of Religious Zionism to be trampled underfoot.”

Moshkovitz noted that while her forum seeks to help all families of Torah scholars, whether from the Religious-Zionist community or the haredi community, they decided to focus their efforts on lobbying the Yamina party and not on haredi MKs, who are limited in the amount of leverage they have, since they are currently in the opposition. But she stressed that any solution that is applied solely to her own community, leaving haredim out in the cold, will not be considered acceptable.

“We make it clear, all the time, that we are fighting for Torah study, no matter who the scholars are or where they come from,” she says. However, in the event that the only solution that is found is one that does abandon the haredim, she says, “In that case, we’ll salvage whatever we can.”

So, what’s next on the agenda? The forum now plans to set up a daycare center right outside the Prime Minister’s Office and invite Knesset members and government ministers to look after their children, as they have no other childcare solution. Moshkovitz hopes that haredi mothers will also be part of this initiative.