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Victory Against Discrimination in Israel

Victory Against Discrimination in Israel

Jenny Baruchi challenged the Israeli economic system. She matriculated to Hebrew University and, in doing so, lost many rights afforded to her by the state as a financially insecure single mother. The state assumed that if she could afford university, then she did not need financial help. Jenny questioned whether, if she was a poor yeshiva student instead of a single mother, would she still receive economic stipends for her studies? These types of questions inspired a series of landmark decisions by the Supreme Court, culminating earlier this week when the Israel Religious Action Center (IRAC) won an important victory against this kind of preferential treatment.

Jenny was right. Some 10,000 yeshiva students who fit specific economic criteria receive stipends from the State of Israel paid directly from the Ministry of Education to their pockets. Such payments are supposed to be given, according to Israeli law, only to people who are unable to work, and therefore students are not eligible because they choose to study rather than to enter the workforce. However, for decades the State has continued to pay these stipends to yeshiva students even though the Supreme Court ruled the payments to yeshiva students illegal. The payments were subsequently limited to five years for each student under the age of 29. In January 2011, IRAC filed a petition at the Supreme Court stating that this practice is discriminatory.

The government argued in the court that these stipends were helping economic integration of the Haredi community, but the reality was the exact opposite. The stipends encouraged Haredi men, who have the highest unemployment rate in Israel, to remain in yeshiva instead of learning hard skills and joining the workforce. Usually by that point in the yeshiva student’s life, he has a large family and would be unable to earn a living in any other way. Even if he wanted to enter the workforce, he would be trapped in self-imposed poverty.

Earlier this week, a panel of seven judges unanimously ruled in IRAC's favor stating that economic assistance for yeshiva students is illegal and will be ended by 2015. As Justice Rubinstein stated in the court's decision, this is a critical step both for the Haredi sector and for the society as a whole. What makes this victory significant is the historic step in the direction toward all members of society contributing equally and having the opportunity to benefit equally from the state. 

Combining Torah study with real world experiences is as old as Jewish learning itself. The great sages of the Talmud could all have been found in the Yellow Pages of their time. Maimonides was a physician, Hillel a lumberjack, and Yochanan ben Zakai was a cobbler.  They all had professions and worked for a living, and they were all models of Torah scholarship. Our Israeli Torah scholars are capable of doing the same.

Anat Hoffman is the executive director of the Israel Religious Action Center, the public and legal advocacy arm of the Reform Jewish Movement in Israel. She is also the chairwoman of Women of the Wall, a group of Jewish women and men from around the world who strive to achieve the right of women to wear prayer shawls, pray, and read from the Torah collectively and out loud at the Western Wall in Jerusalem.

Anat Hoffman
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