The Knesset Finance Committee approved a budget transfer of NIS 420 million ($110 million) for various ultra-Orthodox educational programs on Tuesday, sparking criticism from the opposition and civil society groups. The committee also agreed to allocate NIS 200 million ($52 million) to Arab-majority municipalities, but only after setting up a monitoring mechanism, which was denounced as discriminatory by Arab lawmakers.
Funds for Haredi Education
The budget transfer for ultra-Orthodox education was part of a coalition agreement between Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s Likud party and the ultra-Orthodox parties Shas and United Torah Judaism (UTJ). The funds will go to schools and institutions that are not supervised by the Education Ministry and do not teach core subjects such as math, English and science. Some of the beneficiaries include school systems run by Shas and UTJ, programs for Haredi draft dodgers, yeshiva students from abroad, and dropouts from Haredi schools.
The committee chair, MK Moshe Gafni of UTJ, claimed that the funds were not taken from any “positive” source, but rather from a budget reserve meant for fulfilling coalition agreements. He said that the transfer was delayed for several months due to legal issues and that it was approved by the attorney general.
However, opposition lawmakers and civil society groups slammed the decision as a waste of public money and a blow to the quality of education in Israel. Labor MK Gilad Kariv tweeted that the transfer was an “attack on the liberal community in Israel” and that the coalition had already allocated unprecedented billions for private, unsupervised educational institutions. He also accused Gafni of lying about the source of the funds, saying that they were taken from the Education Ministry’s budget for building new classrooms.
The Movement for Quality Government in Israel also criticized the transfer, saying that it violated the principle of equality and transparency in budgeting. The group said that it would petition the High Court of Justice against the decision, arguing that it harmed the public interest and the rule of law.
Delay for Arab Towns
The committee also approved the allocation of NIS 200 million ($52 million) to Arab-majority towns and cities, which have been suffering from a severe budget crisis due to the coronavirus pandemic. The funds were part of a NIS 1.2 billion ($313 million) aid package that was promised to the Arab sector by the government in January 2023, but has not been fully delivered yet.
However, the committee decided to condition the transfer of the funds on the establishment of an oversight mechanism that would monitor how the money is spent by the Arab municipalities. The mechanism would be set up by the Interior Ministry within 45 days and would require the approval of the Finance Committee.
The decision angered Arab lawmakers, who accused the committee of discrimination and racism. Joint List MK Ahmad Tibi said that there was no justification for imposing such a condition on the Arab towns, which have been neglected and marginalized for decades. He said that no other sector in Israel faced such scrutiny and that the oversight mechanism was a form of collective punishment.
Tibi also pointed out that some of the Arab towns that were supposed to receive the funds were among the most successful in collecting municipal taxes and managing their budgets. He said that the delay in transferring the funds would have serious consequences for the provision of basic services and infrastructure in these towns.
The head of the Federation of Local Authorities in Israel, Haim Bibas, also expressed his disappointment with the decision, saying that it would harm the trust between the government and the Arab sector. He called on the Interior Ministry to expedite the establishment of the oversight mechanism and to ensure that it does not interfere with the autonomy and discretion of the local authorities.